Date posted: 04/03/2019 10 min read

Baby steps for working mums (and dads)

Parental leave has evolved at big firms (to the relief of new mums and dads), but working parenthood is still challenging.

In Brief

  • Large organisations have turned family-friendly staff policies into a powerful tool to retain employees.
  • Due to flexible leave policies, EY has seen a 72% increase in the number of men accessing parental leave.
  • For parents out of the game for more than two years, the Deloitte 20-week Return to Work program assists them with the transition back to the office.
By Fiona Smith

Cam Nguyen CA had all her ducks in a row – so to speak – when it came to figuring out how she could schedule a baby around her small business. With impeccable timing, her first child was due in January, during the two-month hiatus of the summer holiday period.

“We were really lucky to fall pregnant when we wanted,” Nguyen says.

Large firms everywhere are engaged in a game of family-friendly one-upmanship, offering a smorgasbord of parental leave options, but the entrepreneurs such as Nguyen must fend for themselves. As a business owner with three contractors reporting to her, she can’t afford to take more than a few weeks away from her Sydney CBD-based practice Encountr Accounting and Tax.

Nguyen is entitled to up to 18 weeks of government-paid parental leave, but rules say it must be taken before she returns to work, so most of it will be out of her reach. In New Zealand, parents can access 22 weeks of paid parental leave and work up to 52 hours (to keep in touch) without losing the entitlement.

Nguyen’s plan is for her and her husband (who is in the process of launching his own business) to move back home with her parents. The four of them – all with their own jobs – will use whatever flexibility they have to care for the baby.

“Sometimes, I wish I was an employee and I could just get maternity leave.”
Cam Nguyen CA

Come the start of tax season, the baby will be six months old.

“I am very fortunate that I’ve set up everything in my business where, as long as I have a laptop and the internet, I can be online and do little bits and pieces at home. If anything urgent comes up, I can handle that, but I just won’t be physically seeing clients in that time,” Nguyen says. “Sometimes, I wish I was an employee and I could just get maternity leave,” she says, before quickly adding that she loves owning her own business. “I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

Cam Nguyen CACam Nguyen CA

Since Westpac became the first publicly listed company in Australia to offer employer-paid parental leave 24 years ago, large organisations have turned their family-friendly staff policies into a powerful retention tool.

This is a recognition that it makes little sense to lose some of their most experienced and valuable employees when they start their families. Before it launched its ground-breaking scheme of 13 weeks’ paid leave in 1995, only 32% of mothers returned to Westpac after having a baby. Today, almost all do.

Figures from Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency show the average employer-paid parental leave is about 10.5 weeks for primary carers and 7.3 days for secondary carers. In New Zealand, the most generous policies are a “top up” of the government-paid leave to full pay. The New Zealand government pays a maximum of $564.38 a week before tax.

Employees of the Big Four professional services firms have a much easier time of it. The firms offer between 12 and 18 weeks of paid parental leave for primary carers, up to three weeks for secondary carers, and a growing range of flexible work options and assistance.

Back-to-work coaching at KPMG

But things don’t always work out as planned. Cheryl Hulskamp, associate director in advisory at KPMG Australia in Canberra, discovered that due to limited childcare she could not choose her preferred workdays when she returned from parental leave in 2018.

“It is all based on when I could get childcare,” she says, explaining why she works Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. “They have a two-year waiting period. You just have to make it work.”

After nine months at home with her baby, Hulskamp appreciated the six months of coaching offered by KPMG to help her settle back into work.

“It was a transition period to come back,” she says.

Hulskamp speaks to her coach every six to eight weeks and says primary carers can use the service when they are preparing for parental leave, during their time away or when they return to work.

The working mum juggling act

When Lynn Kraus CA started her family 12 years ago, she was one of the first EY partners to take maternity leave. They had to figure out how she’d be paid (as a partner, rather than employee) and the forms she had to fill in assumed she was leaving for good – with requirements to hand back her computer and security pass.

“As a new mum, I didn’t know what exactly was going to make my life better. It’s only when you get a couple of months in that you really realise it is a little bit more challenging than you thought.”
Lynn Kraus CA

“It is quite amazing to look at where we are now, where it’s just a matter of course that we have partners who are either going on maternity leave or paternity leave,” says Kraus, who is now managing partner, Oceania Advisory at EY.

Kraus has never forgotten how, when she returned to work six months after having her son, she struggled with the family-work juggle. “I had a lot of great male sponsoring partners around me, but they had not been through that experience themselves, so they did not know how to help me,” she says.

“As a new mum, I didn’t know what exactly was going to make my life better. It is only when you get a couple of months in that you really realise it is a little bit more challenging than you thought.”

The best advice Kraus received, from another senior female, was to remember: “You are not alone.”

Parental leave for dads, too

Sanmeet (Sammy) BhatiaSanmeet (Sammy) Bhatia and his sons.

The most recent addition to the suite of corporate parental leave policies is an increase in flexibility. Parents don’t have to take their leave all at once; they may have up to two years to take it and may combine it with work, so they work part-time but are paid a full-time wage.

This appears to be a game-changer for men, in particular. EY has had a 72% increase in the number of men accessing parental leave, and Deloitte Australia reports a 128% jump for the same reasons.

Sanmeet (Sammy) Bhatia always thought he’d be a hands-on dad, but he never expected he’d be able to have time as his kids’ full-time carer. Bhatia, a director of management consulting at PwC Australia, has taken parental leave for both his sons and admitted to some trepidation about his career prospects at first. “But then a female colleague said to me, ‘At least you get a choice about this. We don’t’, so I took a leap of faith and did it,” he says.

During the three months he cared for his nine-month-old, he was actually promoted.

Bhatia says his boys are now just as likely to turn to him for comfort as they do to their mother. “The pecking order before I went on leave was: mum, grandmum, toys, strangers and then me,” he says.

Bhatia now encourages other men with access to parental leave to make the most of it. In a LinkedIn article titled “Parental leave – my first hand experience!” he writes: “If you’re a dad working for an organisation that offers parental leave, I encourage you to take it. It will bring you closer to your children and partner.”

“If you’re a dad working for an organisation that offers parental leave, I encourage you to take it.”
Sanmeet (Sammy) Bhatia

Rob Kinghorn, KPMG director of Transport & Infrastructure, took 14 weeks to care for his nine-month-old son when his wife returned to her career. Now back at work, he understands that commercial childcare adds another level of complication: “He brings back a different illness every week and passes it around”.

Kinghorn now works a nine-day fortnight and says parenthood has helped him use his time more efficiently: “I am going home at 5pm, rather than 9pm.”

He says he is “staggered” by official figures that show only 4.7% of all Australian employees who took primary carer’s leave in 2017 were men. “This is a cultural thing that needs to change,” he says.

Parental leave goes beyond nuclear families

Families come in a variety of shapes and many big employers have been adapting their parental leave policies to reflect this.

EY, for instance, extends parental leave to people with surrogacy, adoption, kinship and whāngai arrangements.

Kinship refers specifically to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, where family includes direct parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins, and grandparents. This can also be defined through language and skin group obligations.

Whāngai is the Māori tradition of children being raised by someone other than their birth parents, usually a relative. Whāngai usually involves children being raised by their whānau or extended family, including grandparents, another family member, or someone unrelated.

It can be a short-term, long-term or permanent arrangement and is arranged directly between the birth parents and the mātua Whāngai (the family who will raise the child). A Whāngai child usually knows their birth parents and has an ongoing relationship with them.

When a career gap looks more like a gulf

It had been 12 years since Kathryn Scully had been in the paid workforce and the most confronting thing on her first day in the office was figuring out how to use the elevators.

“You key in the floor number first, scan your badge and it tells you which elevator to go to. It’s not brain surgery. It’s just one of those tiny little things,” says Scully, a manager in consulting (operations transformation) at Deloitte.

It doesn’t sound like a big thing, but when you have been a stay-at-home parent for such a long time, something like that can knock your confidence.

Scully re-entered the workforce through Deloitte’s 20-week Return to Work program, which assists people who have been out of the workforce for more than two years. Deloitte’s director of Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing, Gina De George, says the program works as an internship, where participants are paid at market rates and get coaching and support to get back up to speed.

From the first intake of 15 people in 2017, 13 were offered a permanent role within the firm. De George says the program helps Deloitte recruit from a largely untapped talent pool. “By breaking down those barriers, we make it easier for those people to come back into the workforce.”

Scully says that even though it is a long time since her previous job, contracting in Silicon Valley, she still has the same fundamental capabilities. “It’s all still there. You know it might be a bit rusty in some areas but I’m still the same person that used to work and hold down a professional role.”

Parental leave as a retention tool

Family-friendly workplace policies are one way that the Big Four accounting firms vie for talent. KPMG and EY offer 14-18 weeks of paid primary carer’s leave, depending on the length of service, while PwC and Deloitte provide 18 weeks. PwC and KPMG offer the most unpaid primary carer’s leave at 24 weeks. All of the Big Four allow paid and unpaid primary carer’s leave to be taken flexibly, and offer coaching services for parents returning to work. None of the Big Four offers onsite or subsidised childcare in Australia.

7 tips for returning from parental leave

  • Early birds: As soon as you discover your pregnancy, start talking to childcare operators and put your name on waiting lists, even if you have not yet decided on what you will do.
  • Planning ahead: As soon as you can tell your employer, start discussing possible flexible work options. Go to your manager with some scenarios that could work for you and the organisation – these may include working from home, part-time, late starts or job sharing.
  • Find a role model: Look around at work for other parents who can share their experiences and offer moral support.
  • Disaster plan: Work out what you will do if you can’t come to work because your baby is ill, or childcare falls through
  • Touch base: Stay in touch while you are away by dropping by with your baby, organising some coffee catch-ups and going to work social events.
  • Take it gently: Consider starting back at work on shorter days or part-time until you get into the swing of a routine.
  • Drop the guilt: Remember that a messy house is sometimes a happy house, all babies cry (as do many parents) and cut yourself some slack at work.