In February, I accepted a new job with a Victorian government department while 34 weeks pregnant. I started the new job while at 36 weeks.
I spent two weeks in my new role before going on maternity leave. Crazy – you might say – both the employer and me!
However, this is an example of how an open and inclusive mindset led to a successful outcome for everyone involved.
While we know that it is illegal to discriminate against a woman on the basis of pregnancy, the reality can be quite different. When I sought a new and challenging role during my pregnancy, I was full of self-doubt. I questioned whether I should bother applying, whether the timing was wrong and whether they would want me given I was pregnant.
I thought long and hard about whether to be transparent during the application process. I was worried they would be disappointed with me if I was not transparent, whether I was crazy to embark on this process and if I was even good enough for the role. I sought advice from trusted family, friends, mentors and colleagues and received a myriad of different advice.“It’s not enough to tell women to ‘lean in’, have developed the necessary legal protection, but then not make it work in practice.”
Amongst that, I got the killer advice and confidence boost I needed; “stop thinking about it and just go in there and knock their bloody socks off!” So I did. I stopped thinking about myself as damaged goods, I stopped thinking too far ahead and I stopped guessing what my potential employer would say and think.
I wrote my application and interviewed for the role. I answered questions openly and honestly. I thought long and hard about volunteering that I was pregnant in the interview. I decided not to for three reasons – 1) I didn’t know how much maternity leave I wanted and wanted to have an open conversation if I got the job, 2) I didn’t want to lose confidence in the interview, 3) I really wanted the role and didn’t want to give them a reason not to hire me.
It was hard and I was extremely nervous. Afterwards I even felt my first pang of motherhood guilt; for mentally blocking my baby out during my interview!
When I was informed I was the preferred candidate, I told them I was pregnant. You can imagine my relief, when the response was “that changes nothing.” My new manager and I had discussed the maternity leave I wanted and my return-to-work plan. I was thrilled, especially as my request for maternity leave had opened up an opportunity for another staff member to act in my role. Most significantly, my employer send a powerful message to others that women will not be discriminated against, even if they seek new opportunities while pregnant.
I understand my experience has been ideal, or even lucky. While it is great in theory, it is not always the case. But this conversation has to start somewhere and we need to challenge the mindset that pregnancy and maternity leave is a disadvantage for the employer. It’s not enough to tell women to “lean in”, have developed the necessary legal protection against discrimination, but then not make it work in practice. The majority of executives have 3 or 6 month notice periods. Non-compete periods regularly mean staff need to enjoy “gardening leave” before starting a new job. Yet we rarely discourage these individuals from seeking a new opportunity.
If we as a society are committed to truly opening up employment opportunities to women and boosting women’s workforce participation in Australia, we need to think more openly about employing pregnant women. Women are pregnant, or about to be pregnant, for extended periods of time at the most critical and demanding stage of their career. Simply relying on legislation, yet practising something else, won’t change the status quo.
Sally Hasler is a gender equity adviser and was responsible for launching the 30% Club Hong Kong. She is a Non-Executive Director of St John Ambulance Australia and On the Line.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.