What it feels like to lose your job while on maternity leave
Kylie Ostle recalls being seriously excited about returning to work when her first baby approached the one year mark.
She had childcare sorted, her work clothes dry-cleaned, and was feeling mentally and physically ready for her new life as a ‘working mother’.
But just weeks before she was due to return, she received an email from her employer letting her know she’d been made redundant.
Four years later, Ostle’s had another two children and continues to run the business she set up in response to what happened, Mum Society. But she says receiving that email, and what it consequently did to her confidence levels, still haunts her and gives her anxiety. “I felt lost and like a failure and even now, it saddens me that it could happen,” she told me last night.
Losing your job while on maternity leave can still happen and does still happen to a lot of women, usually behind closed doors. Former Weekend Sunrise newsreader Talitha Cummins’ loss looks set to be a little more public. She claims she was sacked while on maternity leave with her first child Oliver, and is now taking on Channel 7 for unfair dismissal.
Some women will openly talk about losing their job during such a time, like Ostle can, but others will only speak anonymously, as one Women’s Agenda reader emailed through to us yesterday in response to Talitha’s story, saying she’s still looking for work nine months after being made redundant from her corporate role in Sydney, news she received eight months after having a new baby.
“I don’t know how to explain the gap in my CV without immediately having to bring up the fact I’ve recently had a baby, which to be frank will immediately turn most employers off,” she wrote. “I need to work flexibly, I can’t afford to have him in childcare full-time and I don’t have any external family support. I’m now paying for some childcare while I’m still looking, and every day wondering how much this break will cost me financially, and in terms of my career. I feel useless right now. I don’t feel like myself. I feel like everything i’d previously put into my career is now lost, like I’ll have to start again, like I’ll have to prove myself again.”
Almost one in two women experience pregnancy related discrimination while pregnant, on leave or shortly after returning to work, according to a 2014 study by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC study also found that 18% of new mothers reported losing their work during this time — such as through being dismissed, being made redundant, having their contract cancelled, or seeing their role significantly restructured.
Meanwhile the pregnancy-related discrimination cases that do emerge are unlikely to favour employees, according to 2016 research published in the Australian Journal of Labour Law. Alexandra Heron and Sara Charlesworth examined 10 such cases between 2010 and 2014 brought on by employees who had been dismissed while pregnant or while on leave, and found not one had won their case where the employer claimed redudnancy as the reason for the dismissal.
Looking for a work with a new baby at home is seriously challenging (unless or course you’re the father). Many new mothers find themselves skirting around the truth of the new responsibility they have at home, hoping they’ll be able to get the childcare that they need sorted if they get the job, and hoping again that their new employer will offer some kind of flexibility once they’ve ‘proven’ themselves in the role. This may lead to many such mothers taking what they can get, despite having to take on a pay cut in the process or less responsibilities than they had previously.
New mothers must be valued for the work they can put in outside of the home, and as such should be protected. The best way to do that is to help them stay supported in the role they have. Some employers are getting it right — offering return-to-work bonuses, support services, and keeping mums in the loop while they’re away — but far too many continue to do the wrong thing. They lose talented, hardworking staff in the process, and ultimately contribute to the draining pipeline of women for leadership positions.
As Ostle says: “Having a baby and nurturing a human is hard enough without having to worry about what’s next.”