The World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Gender Gap Report contains a few depressing facts: The authors note that at current rates, gender parity will not be attained for 100 years. They also rank countries for their progress—and Pakistan ranks third, which is an attestation to the story I am about to tell.
My second daughter was born earlier this year, 13 years after my first child, by a C-Section that happened on the first day of my maternity leave in Pakistan. In the next weeks, I struggled with the usual sleepless nights with newborns, breastfeeding soreness and adjusting to the demands of caring for an infant—but I was confident that, since I was using state-designated maternity leave, I would be able to make a smooth return to my job.
I had meticulously planned that return for three months, and I believed my work was important enough for the organization that I would be guaranteed my position. (Legally, they were not obligated to do so.) I had worked for them for seven years, and I had worked without respite until the day before my child’s birth.
Little did I know that, like many career women before and after me, I was wrong in my assumption.
Seven days into my maternity leave, someone else was given my position, and I was politely asked to look for a new job within the organization. This left me confused and feeling cheated—and tired. On top of struggling with an emotionally and physically difficult childbirth and caring for two children, I had to worry about finances and my career.
I wondered if this was only a problem in the Global South, and assumed things might be much better for women elsewhere. But after looking into it, I quickly realized that I was wrong. While maternity leave benefits are getting better—some countries give up to a year of leave—work cultures around the world still allow the outright systematic exclusion or subtle discrimination against new mothers.
In the United Kingdom, research commissioned by Slater & Gordon revealed that one in seven women had lost their jobs while on maternity leave, almost 40 percent had their jobs had changed by the time they returned and half suffered a cut in hours or a demotion. Another survey of 1,000 Indian women working in Delhi and its neighboring areas found that only 18 to 34 percent of married women continued working after having a child—with reasons ranging from unsupportive family structures to unwilling organizations that discourage women from returning to work. Japanese government statistics show that biggest reason why up to 70 percent of women quit jobs after having a child is that “working hours make childcare unfeasible.” In countries like Ghana, many women cut short their leave, even though they are given three months, for fear of being replaced and losing their job.
Those who can stay in the workforce also face challenges and discrimination. The National Bureau of Economic Research found a sharp decline in women’s earnings after maternity leave, compared to no salary drop for men. According to their research, women end up earning 20 percent less than men over the course of their career, starting from the birth of their first child. In Denmark, the “mommy tax” accounts for 80 percent of the gender wage gap, while men’s careers go largely unchanged after they become parents. In countries like India, where gender pay gaps are huge from the start, an urban career woman starts at a 23 percent loss; as women grow older and become mothers, they lose even more.
The saying that it takes a village to raise a child was coined before most women worked nine-to-five jobs. Working mothers need more than a village to raise a child—we need empathetic organizations that willingly provide flexible work schedules and phased returns, sanitary childcare facilities, safe pumping rooms and maternity leaves offered without punishment or penalty.
Rising to the challenge of parenting shouldn’t give our bosses reason to throw us down the career ladder. Organizational leaders should initiate mentoring programs for expecting mothers and new parents to help them find support, plan their maternity leave, manage finances and ease back into returning to work. Leaders should prioritize flexibility and customized solutions for returning parents. Companies like Google, Facebook, American Express, Johnson & Johnson and IBM have parent friendly policies—others should take notice.
I intend to go back to work and start over again. And this time around, I will strive to change the work culture that punishes women for motherhood. Laws and improving practices are all very welcome steps—but as long as organizations, leaders, managers and co-workers don’t ensure job security, working mothers will continue suffering for something which should be a cause for celebration.