You would think that when you reach a certain age there shouldn’t be much left in this life that can surprise you. But yet it does …every day! It seems that my destiny is to live in a state of perpetual surprise or shock. This monty alone I have raised my eyebrows around execs not hiring women in case they have to take maternity leave. Another was when I found out that a person’s salary being the size of the GDP of a small Baltic state for doing a bad job.
Or a few weeks ago when a candidate took a call on his mobile phone during an interview, without so much an embarrassed mumbled excuse. He was then surprised because the meeting was unceremoniously closed on the spot! What was he thinking? I’m not sure of the psychology behind this. Is it arrogance or ignorance? Now you can’t impress everyone all of the time, but you can impress most people, some of the time. This I do know.
Return of the dinosaur
But to return to the maternity leave blooper. Imagine my astonishment when I saw this little gem from Glencore’s (the mining and trading giant, preparing to launch London’s biggest-ever flotation) newly appointed Chairman Simon Murray on board quotas “….pregnant ladies have nine months off”, women “have a tendency not to be so involved quite often” and are not “so ambitious in business”.
Barely moments into the onboarding process and seemingly unstoppable, he carries on, opening his mouth only to change feet. “All these things have unintended consequences. Pregnant ladies have nine months off. Do you think that means that when I rush out, what I’m absolutely desperate to have is young women who are about to get married in my company, and that I really need them on board because I know they’re going to get pregnant and they’re going to go off for nine months?”
Old boys board search
So although there was a subsequent apology – my first impression was not positive. Seemingly Mr. Murray was already under pressure to resign only 10 days after his appointment. When we consider the government committees, column inches and think tank hours invested in discussing womens’ positions on boards, this appointment has to bring the whole selection process into question, if there even was one. It has the hallmark of a hardcore old boys network, doing its very worst. Otherwise, how can the appointment of a dinosaur such as this, ever be justified and then now he has, what on earth was he thinking making press statements in this way? This is arrogance not ignorance.
I have spent the week with a number of experienced business owners and managers, all with families themselves. We discussed this article and the repercussions of maternity leave on their organisations in some detail. There were mixed feelings. Tim, owner of an orthodontic practise in Surrey, employing predominantly women, husband to a senior doctor and father to 2 daughters said ” Of course, I am fully supportive of women taking maternity leave, but not enough is said about the organisational difficulties current legislation presents especially for small businesses. My managers are not allowed to ask expectant mothers working in the practise, if they intend to come back to work after they have had their babies, or when. We are not allowed to contact employees while they are away, even if we want an update on a case they have been working on.”
Patricia a senior manager in a large health care organisation, a mother with two children, told me that in the past 7 years one of her senior staff members has been absent for over 50% of that time on maternity leave, which has had serious repercussions on her team.
Pierre, now a retired Managing Director of a construction company in Belgium and father of 3 adult children, as well as 7 grandchildren suggested ” If women are committed to their careers they find a way to pursue them at the same time as raising their families, together with their partners. A relationship with an employer is like any relationship: it’s about open communication. 30 years ago, when it was more common for mothers to stay at home, one of my best managers was a working mother. My daughter and daughters-in-law both work in professional jobs. Today, when both partners need to work for economic reasons – all parties have to find a way around this problem.”
So what is the solution here? Women have children. Men have children. We have a declining birthrate with simply not enough people to economically support an aging population. Future generations will have probably have to work until age 70 unless they can earn and save enough to retire earlier.
This is a problem for governments, organisations and individuals alike. We need an effective legal framework which facilitates appropriate maternity leave, but within a structure and culture where women can remain connected to the workplace, without feeling pressurised. Organisations should be able to stay reasonably engaged with their employees, without fear of harassment accusations. The issue of course will be in the definition of “reasonable”.
And corporate dinosaurs should be left where they belong. In another era.
What do you think?
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