Who’d be a working mum, eh?

By: Mark Williams

Date: 14 January 2011

Research published recently by office-space provider Regus suggests the number of UK businesses who would take on working mums if they were recruiting has fallen significantly in the past year.

More than 1,000 UK businesses were surveyed and only 26 per cent said they would hire a woman with children, compared with 38 per cent last year. According to Regus: “With 43 per cent of firms saying they plan to increase employee numbers this year [itself quite a remarkable statistic], the proportion intending to recruit working mums is worryingly low.”

Sadly, when asked for key reasons, the same tired, old excuses (not reasons) reared their ugly heads. Some 38% fear “working mothers may show less commitment and flexibility than other employees”; while “31% believe working mums will leave to have another child”; and “17% are worried that women who return to the workplace will have out-of-date skills”.

Why are so many UK employers still stuck in the 1970s with their thinking when it comes to women with children? I’d wager that many of respondents were male – whadya reckon? And behind most successful businessmen, usually there’s a dutiful wife tucked away in the suburban background, who’s quietly looked after the kids and home for years.

Women seemed damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Most working mums I’ve worked with over the years could give many of their colleagues lessons in commitment. Trying to balance a career with childcare is no small challenge. Most families these days can only get by on two incomes, so many women have no choice but to return to work after having children – they do so out of necessity, not choice.

And while many women are allowed to work fewer days after having children (employers who facilitate such flexible arrangements take a bow), most working mums feel under added scrutiny and immense pressure to achieve the same results. They could give lessons in working hard, too. Many working mums try to cram as much work into their reduced working week as they did previously, which can eventually takes its toll.

The use of the word “flexibility” by respondents is interesting. This, of course, usually means willingness to habitually work for no pay. Surely by now we all know it’s about working smarter, not longer? And if your business really has to rely on employees’ willingness to work for free, you’ve really got problems. As long as people work the hours for which they are paid, employers can’t really complain.

On a more positive note, again according to Regus, 67 per cent or those surveyed said employers who ignored the potential contribution returning mothers can make are “missing out on a significant and valuable part of the employment pool”.

More than half (51%) regard working mums as “offering skills that are difficult to find in the current market”; and (revealingly) 45% value returning mothers because “they offer experience and skills without demanding top salaries”. (The implication being that some employers believe these women are just glad to have a job, so they won’t ask for pay parity with male colleagues.)

Generalising is a foolish and dangerous act. It’s certainly not my personal experience, but I’m sure there are women who show less commitment and don’t work as hard after they return to work after having children. In many ways, it’s a natural consequence. But as with any other employee, if there are problems with a working mum’s punctuality, attendance, productivity or quality, then your business should have processes and mechanisms to resolve them.

Some women will soon leave again – either temporarily or permanently – to have more children, and this often creates headaches for business owners and managers. But not taking on women with children or women of a certain age for fear they will soon have children isn’t the answer.

It seems some employers still have a lot to learn when it comes to the two-way streets that are commitment and flexibility.