Ben Black, Director

A Few (Slightly Controversial) Thoughts on Maternity Packages

Ben Black, Director

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The grass is always greener on the other side

Just that when you get there it often isn't. And if you're really unlucky, you'll get eaten by the troll on the way to find out in any case. But I digress. This isn't a blog about fairy tales. It's about maternity leave and the myth that is the Nordic way of doing things.

Our Scandinavian neighbours

We always look slightly enviously at them. I mean, they're a tall, good-looking bunch who have plenty of oil, and tend to beat us at football as well. When it comes to Government, they are in the John Lewis zone of being near-perfect caring and sharing capitalists; think the best of Thatcher and Blair combined, and you'll get the picture.

When it comes to female leadership and childcare, they have also led the way. Getting more women to the top is all about equality of opportunity; that's what the experts told us. You need generous maternity provision, aggressive quotas for women at board level, brilliant state-funded childcare, and the results will follow.

That's the route most of our Nordic neighbours took, only - mysteriously - the results haven't followed. The Economist's Schumpeter column is brilliant on the subject.

So what has gone wrong?

I'm keen not to upset any of my more opinionated readers, so let me start with an example closer to home: I have 9 year old boy-girl twins. Clearly they are not identical, but bear with me here. Let's suppose that, save for the obvious differences, they are.

Certainly intellectually they already have a healthy rivalry. I would be dismayed if one or the other of them had a better chance of a successful career than the other based on their sex. It's a good tribute to the progress already made that they will start out with the same ambitions.

Now let's suppose they both spend 10 years in big corporate environments conquering all before them and then girl twin gets pregnant. Her employer has a generous maternity policy and she decides to take a year off. So now boy twin is a year ahead of his sister. In reality it will take a few months to get back up to speed, so he's more like 18 months ahead.

Sure enough, she has another baby and by the time she's back in the workplace, she's 3 years behind her brother. At that point, it's easy to see a few other practical and emotional hurdles raising their ugly heads.

You can guess where this is going... And the biggest problem is the first one - the generous maternity package.

Flexible working is a reality

People can and do combine career and family successfully. Most people come back to work. 25 years ago people had a choice between career and family. A generous maternity package was pretty much the best way to retain your female talent; that is no longer true.

If we're really serious about getting female talent to the top of organisations, then reducing maternity breaks needs to be on the agenda. That, and getting men to embrace the possibilities of Shared Parental Leave with wide open arms.

Those are two quite big asks and not for the faint-hearted HR Director to address. And now that I've said all that, I'm going under cover!

Ben Black

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HR and diversity professionals.