Date posted: 17/10/2023 8 min read

Back on board

Becoming a parent shouldn’t derail your career. So, are modern parental leave policies making it easier for professionals to take time off and transition back to work effectively? Five chartered accountants weigh in.

In Brief

  • In the past, many accounting firms had parental leave policies that were not very family friendly, such as not providing leave for secondary caregivers.
  • Being able to maintain contact with colleagues during parental leave makes the transition back to work easier, according to some parents.
  • Welcoming a new family member is a huge milestone, and our interviewees agree it takes time to adjust – both at home and then in the transition back to work.

By Jessica Mudditt

Both employers and employees have much to gain from providing family-friendly workplace policies – especially if we want to keep talent in the accounting profession. Acuity asked five chartered accountants to describe the unique challenges and joys around having a baby, while maintaining their professional career.

How things have changed

Kelly Chard FCA has witnessed many positive changes since her youngest child was born 12 years ago – both in terms of attitudes and formal parental leave policies.

“My husband is also a chartered accountant and there was no [parental leave] policy for fathers at the time. They were just expected to go on with their daily work, as if they didn’t have another new human in their life,” she says.

She also encountered discriminatory practices after telling her employer that she was pregnant “I was told that I would have been really good at my job if I had not fallen pregnant. I was moved to a substandard desk and taken off a large key client. I reported it to HR at the time and it wasn’t taken seriously, so I didn’t pursue it. I regret that.”

Chard now runs her own firm, GrowthMD, and it is important to her to provide family-friendly flexibility. She believes that an increasing number of firms are celebrating the fact that people have many facets to their life. Nowadays, a career in chartered accounting can provide the flexibility many working parents want and need, she says.

“Workplaces need to embrace the amazing milestone that welcoming a child is in somebody’s life and give their employees the space to enjoy that milestone. If you want a long-term relationship with your team members, be patient and understand that having children is part of their life cycle. For chartered accountants who are also becoming parents, give yourself time and space.

Don’t feel like you must conform to traditional expectations of what simultaneously being a parent and an accountant looks like. Have the confidence to choose your own path.”

Kelly Chard FCAPictured: Kelly Chard FCA. Image credit: Russell Shakespeare.

Policy evolves with the times

When Ming Wong-Too-Yuen CA’s son was born in 2021, he took just two weeks’ paid parental leave as per the policy at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.

“Now, our policy does not differentiate between primary and secondary carers, so if or when we have another baby I’ll be entitled to 18 weeks’ paid leave, plus another 34 weeks’ unpaid leave and more if needed,” says Wong-Too-Yuen, who is senior curriculum lead at CA ANZ.

He was grateful for the organisation’s flexible arrangements, which allowed him to work from overseas for three months in 2022. The flexible working policy gives approvals on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether a specific role can be undertaken remotely.

“My wife’s parents live in Africa and I have family there too,” he says. “Our son is my in-laws’ only grandchild and they hadn’t been able to come to Australia in 2021 or 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the limited number of international flights coming to Australia from Africa.

“The flexibility for our family has been fantastic,” he says. “I have been able to spend more time with my son, seeing him grow and caring for him, as well as providing better support to my wife. It meant I was there for so many of my son’s ‘firsts’, such as his first steps and first words.”

He adds: “Since becoming a parent, I sometimes feel like my career is not progressing as I want or compared with my peers. But as a parent, I have been often told that children are unique and they develop at different rates. I just need to remind myself that the same goes for my career. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I am not as good as my peers. It is just that we have all taken different paths with different priorities and different timings.”

From the ground up

When Grace Liang CA became pregnant with her first child in 2021, her organisation had no maternity leave policy. She was the first of its 20 staff to be expecting a child. As the director of development and operations at Evolution Trustees, she took on the task of drafting a policy – and she had a very personal stake in getting it right.

“It was important to me to create a policy that would create a positive work-life balance,” she says. “I wanted to make it a smooth process for parents when they returned to work. But I also had to keep in mind that we are a small business. We can’t really compete with large organisations who have many employees [who can provide cover for their colleagues].”

Liang proposed the idea of providing 12 weeks of paid leave, which is the average among Australian companies. Management told her that they wanted to do better and stipulated 16 weeks. A cash bonus affectionately known as the ‘pram bonus’ is paid when the baby is born.

Contrary to typical arrangements in Australia, superannuation is paid throughout periods of parental leave. “This was important to me, because men typically retire with double the amount of super that women have,” she says.

Liang was also conscious of creating a parental policy, rather than having different policies for mothers versus fathers. Leave entitlements depend upon whether the employee is the primary or secondary caregiver, with four weeks’ extra leave given to the former.

Like many parents, adjusting to life with a new family member was both joyful and challenging.

Says Liang: “I’d been working since I was 18, when I started as a cadet at Ernst & Young [EY]. And then suddenly I was just changing diapers and being a milk cow 24/7. I had a bit of an identity crisis. It was a chance for me to reorient myself.”

Liang returned to work after 10 months and she expected the transition to be easier than it was. It took her time to regain her confidence and overcome conflicted feelings.

“When I went back to work, the guilt about leaving my child with someone else was difficult. I’ve been on 10 work trips since I’ve gone back to work and that makes me feel a little bit guilty too,” she says.

There were also logistical challenges around breastfeeding at work, and she stopped as a result.

“There was just a room with a frosted panel in the middle of the glass for breastfeeding! People outside the room could hear the pump,” Liang says. “Sometimes I’d have to pump at the airport and if the flight was delayed, the milk was unrefrigerated for so long that I’d have to throw it away.”

Responding to the unexpected

Zowie Pateman FCA is the deputy leader of reporting and assurance at CA ANZ. She had planned on taking six months’ maternity leave, but ended up taking nine months because her baby was born three months early. Back then, CA ANZ did not have paid parental leave for premature births specifically, so she was unable to benefit from the provision that now exists in CA ANZ’s policy.

For Pateman, one of the few upsides to her son’s unexpected early arrival was that she was able to retain her work laptop while on leave.

“Because everything happened so fast, my boss told the IT team to leave me be. In the short term, having my laptop was a big help with handing over work and keeping in touch with colleagues.

“I’ve got no idea how people would normally do that if they didn’t have their laptop and login details still functioning,”she says. “For me, it was one piece of normality that I could maintain.”

Pateman’s son had some health issues associated with being born at just 29 weeks. Due to the COVID-19 lockdowns Pateman was working from home like everyone else, which allowed her to continue breastfeeding for 26 months before the transition back to the office began.

“I didn’t want to be the one to decide when we had to stop breastfeeding. I feel lucky that I was able to continue breastfeeding for as long as I did. I had an amazing opportunity to give him the best start he could possibly get,” she says.

Pateman returned to work full-time and her husband became the primary carer and took 2.5 years off work. The decision was made through necessity: the family could survive on Pateman’s salary alone, but not her husband’s. As their son recently turned three, Pateman’s husband has returned to work.

“It’s been challenging,” she says. “I think women take on more than if the roles were reversed. I took on all that mental load and juggling everything was difficult. It’s hard to swap the traditional male-female responsibilities around.”

Adjusting and adapting

Dr Cherrie Yang CAPictured: Dr Cherrie Yang CA. Image credit: Adam Firth.

Dr Cherrie Yang CA received nine weeks’ full pay and a one-year maternity leave period, where her job at a university in New Zealand was kept open for her. She loved being a new mother, but the challenges were significant.

“Having a baby is an extremely rewarding experience, but like every mum I experienced a lack of sleep and lots of mental-health ups and downs,” Yang says.

“Once the nine weeks of paid leave finished, I was conscious of not making any financial contribution to the family.”

She also experienced self-doubt, both during maternity leave and when she returned to work.

“My eldest daughter is 14 and I felt that I should know what I was doing a second time around – yet often I didn’t. Sometimes I’d think to myself, ‘The only job for you now is to look after the baby’.

Yang’s younger daughter is now 18 months old and at the start of the year Yang joined Massey University, where she is a senior lecturer at the School of Accountancy. The benefits were a more family-friendly work environment, with a shorter commute and no evening classes to teach.

Yang says that taking time off to have a child has slowed her overall career progression.

“Before I left my previous employer, I was close to promotion,” she says. “When I returned, it was hinted at that I had lost momentum and I would need to wait longer to apply. When another offer came up elsewhere, I took it.”

However, Yang subsequently learned that she would need to wait three years to apply for a promotion because her experience elsewhere does not carry over. She will need to demonstrate ‘sustained performance’ at the new workplace to be considered for a promotion.

“Taken together, I have had a four-to-five-year delay in my career progression, compared with someone who didn’t take time out to have a baby,” she says, “but I wouldn’t say that it’s a loss. I am at peace with myself.

“Career progression is not the most important thing in life. Now I have Alison and nothing compares with that.” 

“I have had a four-to-five-year delay in my career progression, compared with someone who didn’t take time out to have a baby.”
Dr Cherrie Yang CA, Massey University

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