Flexibility key for working mums

REBECCA STEVENSON
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2014
Jackie Mulligan
PETER MEECHAM
MIXING WORK AND MOTHERING: Jackie Mulligan chucked her law career in order to balance her family’s lifestyle.

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Jackie Mulligan's aha moment came as she scrambled over a fence in her pyjamas, clutching her cordless phone.

A judge and a number of barristers, including Mulligan, were on the line, but Mulligan was the only one working from home who had to escape two small braying children.

The distractions that led Mulligan to bolt over her fence dressed in her PJs were out of the ordinary, but juggling employment when you want to have children is an all too common issue.

Statistics from the Household Labour Force Survey found an increasing proportion of women aged 25 to 34, the main age group for mothers of young children, are in the paid workforce.

About 26,000 women are accessing the state-funded paid parental leave per year, for an annual cost of about $157 million.

But not everyone comes back to work, nor is it always easy to do so.

A report last year from professional services firm E&Y put the cost to Australia and New Zealand of mothers leaving the workforce at $1.64 billion with a further $8b in education investment wasted.

The Human Rights Commission recorded 71 inquiries and complaints from Kiwi workers last year related to pregnancy and employment.

Canterbury University economist Dr Eric Crampton says it's evident childbearing costs women in terms of forgone earnings even if they do return to work.

He says women often choose industries and employers that provide more flexibility, resulting in lower wages.

But Crampton doesn't like framing women's choices as "costs to the country".

Parents get a lot of joy from being home with their children and provide childcare services that would otherwise need to be paid for, he says.

So how to mix work and mothering? A number of Kiwi corporates have made keeping women in work a priority.

Vodafone boasts more than 80 per cent of its workers return to the office after having children.

The cost of retaining talent is cheaper than rehiring and training someone new, head of human resources Jan Bibby says.

The mobile network operator offers its staff up to 52 weeks of maternity leave and tops up the state scheme so women off work get their full salary for the first 12 weeks.

It now has a number of part-time female workers on staff including in management roles, Bibby says.

External communications manager Michelle Baguley is one of Vodafone's working mums. She's been with the company for 10 years and two children.

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She currently works 32 hours a week across four days and has done so for four years.

While it's not easy leaving the kids to go back to work, Baguley says it has been wonderful to feel supported by her employer, and she says part-time work is now accepted.

But for those not employed by a generous blue chip corporate it can be more fraught.

Mulligan has worked her way through most of the available options.

When she started having children she was employed as an associate at a top tier law firm in Auckland.

She went back to work after her first son was eight months old, working three days a week.

While she had the option to work part-time, Mulligan says there was an undercurrent that her choice to have a baby and work part-time wasn't really supported.

"It felt like I was being granted an indulgence," the mother of four says.

Meetings she needed to attend would be scheduled on her off days, which felt like "wilful ignorance" of her part-time employment status.

Clients expected her to be available all the time, Mulligan was told, but she felt that it was the law firm that really expected that, not her clients.

So after another child, and promotion, Mulligan decided she needed to do something different, and enrolled with the bar so she could become self-employed.

"I was in complete control."

Which all worked relatively well, Mulligan says, until the day of the fateful conference call.

Mulligan eventually found an option that works for her - and for other lawyers who are also mothers.

Once she realised there were plenty of smart, qualified women not working in law because they couldn't find flexible work, she co-founded legal recruiter McKenzie Ellis with another working mum in 2004.

A skills shortage went hand in glove with Mulligan's push to get employers to consider part-time staff but a tighter job market in recent years has seen flexible work on the backburner again, Mulligan says.

"There used to be the feeling that there is no such thing as a part-time lawyer," she says.

"But we can get these people, and they are really good, and they want to work part-time. We need people to think about it, and give [part-time] a try."

- Sunday Star Times

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