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12 Jun 2018

Why it's still hard for women to return to work after maternity leave

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Lack of money and support make it hard for women with young children to return to work – unless they are the prime minister of New Zealand or a reality TV star

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, is expecting a baby. She plans to take a short break and then continue to, well, govern a country. As Arden prepares for her new arrival, another powerful woman has just given birth. No, not Kate Middleton. I am, of course, referring to the unicorn startup mogul Kylie Jenner.

What do these two women have in common? Obviously it’s the fact that both of their decisions to have children and also simultaneously continue with their careers have been met by nothing short of hysteria the world over.

“But how will she govern?” people squawked online after Arden’s pregnancy was announced. Similarly, when Kylie Jenner recently took a weekend off from her newborn to nip across to Coachella there were hysterical cries of “But who is with her baby?”.

It is absurd that the ability of women with jobs and social lives to be mothers is still the subject of so much panic. But society just can’t seem to get its head around this possibility.

Perhaps this is because, for the majority of women, staying at work and/or having a life while also raising children is very difficult. Britain has some of the most expensive childcare in Europe which means that, sadly, “stay at home mother” is a role many take on despite the fact it is not exactly what they would choose. 

When I had my first child, my daughter Ella, I had just launched the Big Chill Festival and had to rock her in her baby seat under the desk to hush her while answering the phone and rolling on the business. It takes such determined strength to balance both work and motherhood in a society not designed to accommodate both together.

What Arden and Jenner have in common is this: money and support. Because they are powerful women who earn well they will be able to pay for the childcare they need to keep doing what they do best. Hell, Kylie could probably fly her momager around with her in a separate jet to lend a hand if she wanted to because they’re in the family business together.

That, however, is not the point. Not everyone is a prime minister with legions of assistants or a family business mogul with an army of relatives. The status quo needs to change. In general, very few people can forge the sort of flexible work life with which having a family is compatible, and it shouldn’t be like this. 

Take Goldman Sachs, for instance, which opened the City of London’s first on-site corporate office creche in 2003 and now offers the same service in its Tokyo and New York offices. And perhaps there’s something to be learned from Arden’s country. In New Zealand, one in five business offers flexible working – whether that’s working remotely or juggling commitments to suit employees’ schedules.

What would the future of work look like if on-site childcare became standard in offices? What if there were more flexible co-working spaces where spouses could work alongside one another and take it in turns to leave early to pick up children? If more of us could choose how, when and where we work, perhaps having a family and running a business would not seem like such contradictory roles.

As the recent government-enforced gender pay gap reporting has revealed, not being able to juggle a family and work is a huge factor. The fact that so many women cannot afford to work or get out and about after they have children is down to one thing: bad economics. If childcare was cheaper or, dare I say it, family and flexibility more ingrained in workplace culture then maybe the fact that a woman – whether she be prime minister or a makeup mogul – not only decided to have a baby but, god forbid, carry on with her life afterwards, it wouldn’t even be newsworthy. 

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