THE BLOG

The Mummy-Track Is Alive and Kicking, and Gathering Steam

13/08/2014 14:12 BST | Updated 12/10/2014 10:59 BST

Working mothers are still being put on the "mummy-track" according to research findings released this week.

We have so many terms to learn all the time it's hard to keep up - for anyone who is not familiar with it, "mummy-track" refers to the sidelining of mothers in the workplace when they return from maternity leave.

Offending employer assume that once a woman has children, she is no longer interested in her career. Sure, she turns up for work on time, she does her job, but she's the first one out the door each evening. She's not really motivated anymore, because she's gazing into space, thinking about her children - her mind is on play-dates and potty-training instead of projects and presentations. Anyone? Yeah, me neither.

But common sense notwithstanding, it seems the Mummy-Track is alive and well, and picking up steam.

According to the findings released by law firm Slater and Gordon, three-quarters of the 2,000 respondents polled said that there was a perception that mothers "wouldn't be ambitious" and that "their boss didn't think they were as capable once they had children"

In a press release, Kiran Daurka, lawyer at Slater & Gordon, said: "The term 'the mummy track' is well-known amongst those fighting maternity discrimination. We hear troubling stories from mothers every day about how they were mistreated after returning from maternity leave and have found their careers derailed".

Admittedly, it's entirely possible that in some cases, respondents were perceiving discrimination that may not have been real. This sounds provocative but it's important. I think that in order to accept that the overall issue is a real problem, we have to agree that it's unlikely that every case is material.

When a woman returns to work after maternity leave, it can take time to settle back in, and there can be a sense not quite fitting in - it takes time to rebuild confidence. If someone has been covering her work while she was out, she may feel that she has to prove herself on her return. In a sense, she is subconsciously (or consciously) in competition with the person who did her job while she was gone.

This is borne out in the survey findings: nearly 80% of respondents said that the person hired to cover them was kept on after they had returned to work, and almost four in ten admitted that this bothered them. Of course it would - it's hard for any employee to build back confidence while worrying that her replacement is doing a better job (though of course, retaining good staff isn't a valid criticism of employers).

This lack of confidence could certainly generate a sense of being "derailed" as per survey findings, and this often disappears as the employee settles back in.

But there is no doubt that there are many, many more cases where there absolutely is discrimination taking place. Not necessarily in an obvious way. Not necessarily in a very deliberate or even conscious way. But if any woman is being treated differently simply because she has children, it clearly constitutes discrimination.

And yes, many working mothers look for shorter hours and try to strike a better work/ family balance. They may need to drop or collect their children to or from childcare, working in informal "shifts" with a partner who does the other run. They may look for a shorter working week or less business travel or fewer weekend projects.

And in some jobs this possibly does limit promotional opportunities; jobs that genuinely require longer hours, late evening face-to-face meetings, or regular weekend work - conditions that are manageable for some mothers but unattractive to most.

But there are many, many jobs where the quantity of hours is not the defining measure of quality of work. Jobs where the results are what matters, and not the amount of time spent physically in the office. Jobs where there's no reason to assume that because an employee is leaving for a 5pm crèche run, she (or he) is less ambitious than before.

In every workplace, there are people who work fast and smart and get the job done quickly. And in every workplace there are those who take long breaks and work more slowly. Let's be honest - there are slackers everywhere - some of them are mothers, some are fathers, some are twenty-year-old graduates working a first job, some are sixty-year-old lifers who've been around forever. Ambition and children are not mutually exclusive - a hardworking, productive, motivated employee doesn't transform overnight once children arrive.

Instead of sidelining mothers, employers need to find ways to ease the return to work and to offer flexibility. Or they risk losing productive, experienced, smart-working staff who belong somewhere with a much better name than the "mummy-track".