Was Nigel Farage right about mothers in the City?

January 24, 2014

And the award for foot in mouth this week goes to… UKIP, again. This time it was leader Nigel Farage, who said that women who take time off to have children are worth less to their employer. He said this to an audience of (presumably) men in the City and rounded it off by saying there is no sexism in financial services and that childless women are more than a match for their male counterparts.

While I am not normally in the position of defending Nigel Farage, or any other politician for that matter, I think his comments deserve our attention and women should use them to trigger an important debate about mothers and the work place.

Farage said that women who take two to three years out to have children tend to be worth less to their employers because when they come back to work they don’t have the same client contacts etc. The media jumped on the back of his words and tried to use the ‘Farage is a bigot’ angle by citing examples of powerful women in the City who have had children. However, the media did women a great disservice since a lot of the high flying business women they spoke to took far less maternity leave than the two to three years that Farage was referring to.

Let’s take Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo. She took the job when she was seven months pregnant; however she only had three weeks maternity leave, worked throughout it and then built a nursery in her office. For some women that just wouldn’t cut it. They want to take their full allotment of maternity leave (one year) and when that is up they may choose to invest another year in their child’s upbringing. It is obvious that there is an element of self-sacrifice for the career women who choose to spend their child’s formative years at home with them compared to the women who waltz back in to the office after five or six months.

A shorter maternity leave is obviously less disruptive to your career. If you take off only a few months then women with client-facing roles probably won’t have many clients jump ship to someone else. In other jobs it’s easier to jump back into that project you were working on before you left and carry on as before.

The opposite is also true – the longer you spend out of the workforce the harder it is to get back in. I doubt there will be many high flying women in any sector who spent five years taking care of their children at home.

This is an important point; even so-called ‘women friendly’ professions have barriers to re-entry for women with children. A senior teacher may not be hired back in the same position if they spent four years out of education. Likewise, a publisher may prefer to hire an editor who had been active in the industry to manage their latest books.

In my experience women with children are some of the best workers in an organisation. They are organised and efficient with their time because they have to juggle multiple responsibilities. They also have some great training in leadership and team management that can be put to great use in the work place. Skills, ambition and ability are not part of this debate, instead the more important question for a woman in her early thirties like me is how can we transition back into the work force if, for whatever reason, we want to take three, four or even five years out to bring up children?

Here’s an example: a female business journalist has been out for three and a half years and is looking to get back into full time work. She has a great track record for her writing and analytical abilities and she was known for her scoops before she went on maternity leave.  However, her contact list is out of date and it will take a while to get back into the swing of working and getting that next scoop. Of course she can do it, but she may need a bit of time to get her stride back.

Why not hire her back on a lower salary, with a clause that says she will be up for a review every six months for a period of a year or so that can include pay rises if she deserves it? A scaled entry back to her former role, rather than a grim future stuck in a junior job that she is evidently too good for?

So far the debate seems to be all or nothing – you are either all career and no mother, or all mother and no career. How about a hybrid? A tiered system for re-entry to the work place could be one option. The other option could be called the Anne-Marie Slaughter approach.

Slaughter is a professor from Princeton who left her job as the Director of Planning at the U.S. State Department to spend time with her teenage children. She wrote about an inflammatory article titled ‘Why women still can’t have it all’. Perhaps the title should have been ‘Why women still can’t have it all right now’, because Slaughter advocates that women should not look at their careers in a linear fashion, but instead see it as a circle: climb up the ladder when you are young, take time out to look after children, come back to the work force and drop a few rungs, before climbing back to that top job when you are in your late forties or fifties?

This idea resonated with me; however it requires patience, a precious commodity these days. People want constant satisfaction, but it can’t always work that way. If you could take time out of your high finance job and know that in 10 years’ time you would be in the running to be CEO you may be less worried about the damage your extended maternity leave will have on your career.

Perhaps the bigger road-block for women is not comments like those from Farage, but rather the dearth of opportunities for older women across industries. That is what really needs to be addressed for women to ensure they aren’t penalised for having children and taking time out to look after them.

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