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Column Yes, I leave work on time – that doesn't mean I don't work hard

Employers need to ensure they’re not discriminating against working parents that are organised enough to leave at 5 o’clock – judge the output, not the hours, writes Andrea Mara.

“ON A HALF day again I see” – a remark that is commonly directed at women (and sometimes at men) as they leave work to collect children from crèche. It’s not usually meant in a derogatory way, but it has the power to needle, to irk, to ignite a certain amount of fuming.

There’s an assumption that because a mother is leaving work earlier than her colleagues, that she hasn’t worked as hard as everyone else. Of course she has – she just managed to get everything finished more quickly, because she had to leave on time.

A comment like this can be annoying to listen to if it’s repeated every day, but in itself it is no more than that – an annoyance.

Problems arise if this “early” departure leads to an assumption that the woman in question is no longer interested in her career. She can end up on the Mommy-Track.

Being put on the “mommy track” is a yet another problem faced by women returning to work after having children. We have so many terms to learn all the time it’s hard to keep up – for anyone who is not familiar with it, “mommy track” refers to the sidelining of mothers in the workplace.

It means that employers sometimes make assumptions that once a woman has children, she is no longer interested in her career. Sure she turns up, she does her work, but her mind is on her kids, and she’s the first one out the door each evening.

The findings in a 2013 UK survey by law firm Slater & Gordon show the following:

  • More than one in four mothers feel they have been discriminated against at work while pregnant or after returning to their job;
  • Half of those polled said they felt left out or not taken seriously at work after having a child, while two out of five believed younger colleagues with no children were given more support and encouragement;
  • Three out of five said they believed pregnancy was a problem for their workplace and a third found it “impossible” to climb the career ladder after giving birth.

Insecurity and perceived discrimination

I would guess that in at least some of the cases, respondents were perceiving discrimination that may not actually have been taking place. When a woman returns to work after maternity leave, it can take time to settle back in, and there can be a sense of being in limbo; a sense of not quite fitting in. If a co-worker has been covering her work while she was out, she may feel that she has to prove that her return is adding value for her employer. In a sense, she is subconsciously (or consciously) in competition with whoever did her job while she was gone.

This lack of confidence could certainly breed a feeling of being “left out or not taken seriously” as per the survey findings. So let’s agree that certainly in some cases it’s a perceived discrimination, and it may disappear as the returning employee settles back and gains confidence.

However there is no doubt that there are many, many more cases where there is in fact discrimination taking place. Not necessarily in an obvious way. Not necessarily in a very deliberate or even conscious way.

But if the end result is that a woman is being treated differently simply because she has children, it is clearly discriminatory.

Of course many working mothers seek shorter hours and try to strike a better work/ life balance. They need to collect their children from childcare and they want to ensure that weekends are set aside purely for family-time.

And in some jobs this does limit promotional opportunities. There are certainly roles that genuinely require longer hours; meetings with counter-parties in various time-zones, or regular weekend work in addition to the normal working week – conditions that are manageable for some mothers but unattractive to most.

However there are many, many jobs where the quantity of hours is not the defining measure of quality of work. There are many jobs that do not involve late evening meetings with US colleagues or early morning conference calls with Asia. There are many jobs which can be completed during the normal working day, because the employee works fast, works smart, works hard.

Judge output – not hours

It is undoubtedly possible to spend four hours or eight hours or twelve hours completing a particular volume of work – in each example, the same end goals can be achieved; it just takes longer to achieve the goals if the employee isn’t motivated to work quickly.

And if the employee takes coffee breaks and chat breaks and long lunch breaks, of course it takes longer, and that’s fine too – as long as the work gets done (and the person is not being paid by the hour!) it doesn’t really matter how long it takes (within reason)

So if a an employee who has children works at close to 100 per cent productivity all day; skipping breaks and chats; working through lunch if needed, there is no justification in judging her for walking out the door at 5pm.

Mothers in the workplace are extremely motivated. I’m not making this up to prove a point; I’m speaking from 15 years of experience working with colleagues who didn’t have children when I first met them and now do.

I see it with myself – I don’t do any less work than I did before I had children – I have more responsibility now and so do more work, but I fit it into four days instead of five and I leave at 4 o’clock each day instead of 6. I’m just working faster than ever before.

Parents are multi-taskers

A problem exists if there is a blanket assumption by an employer that any mother in the workforce is no longer in consideration for promotion, simply because she has children – or that she is not interested in advancement; or that leaving on time is a sign that she has lost motivation; or (and this one is infuriating) that her mind is on her kids instead of on work.

Mothers are multi-taskers, natural organisers, the capable managers of every aspect of life.
At work, they are tremendously motivated to get the job done, partly in order to leave on time to collect their children.

And while some women are no longer as highly motivated to progress their careers as they were pre-parenthood, many more are, and feel that they should be able to do so if they are producing good work.

Employers need to take a look at their own practices, to ensure that they are not discriminating against working mothers for being organised enough to leave at 5 o’clock – judge her output, not her hours.

Andrea Mara has three small kids, one tall husband and one office job. She writes at about being a parent, being a mother working outside the home, being a woman in the workplace. She’s just trying to keep her balance. Follow her tweets@office_mum or on Facebook.

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