Are businesses responding to changing expectations of working life?

Many moons ago, I left a job in a bank when I was five months pregnant. I’d overheard a conversation I wasn’t meant to; my bosses discussing how they were going to cut my clients out of a lucrative deal because I’d be off soon and the chances are I wouldn’t be back. I was stunned. I’d worked hard for years in an overwhelmingly male environment — been as good, if not better than the boys and been promoted fast. But when it came down to it, this was no place for me and I left, proving my bosses right after all.

A couple of years later I started Mumsnet, with the idea that at least if I was in charge, then I could guarantee a family friendly workplace.

That was way back in the last millennium. I think we’d all like to believe things have improved for pregnant women since then. But our users still describe shocking examples of discrimination. Recently one talked about being made to work extra hours whilst pregnant because she was going to be ‘leaving them in the lurch’.

“Smart businesses understand that training women only to lose them through a lack of flexibility when they become parents is bad business.“

When surveyed, four out of five mothers said they felt their promotion prospects had been worsened by pregnancy and a similar number said they felt becoming a mother made them less employable.

Despite the raft of legislation designed to protect women from such discrimination, many told us they felt their job was under threat when they came back after maternity leave.

That’s why, in 2010, we launched the Mumsnet Family Friendly programme, which aims to help companies improve their policies and to celebrate their innovations.

In the three years that the programme has been running we’ve worked with companies ranging from BT to the National Trust to Matalan, employing over a million staff and we’ve seen tangible improvements. From gradual return to work schemes to core working hours policies that mean that being part time doesn’t mean you always miss the most important meetings.

Smart businesses understand that training women only to lose them through a lack of flexibility when they become parents is bad business.

Surely in a digital age where we all walk around with a device that means we can be reached almost anytime anywhere that ought to be more possible than ever?

Parents need to be able to put their children first but with a mobile phone in your hand, work can come a close second.

Justine Roberts is Founder and CEO of Mumsnet, an online community of parents sharing advice, support and product recommendations. She was listed number 7 in BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List of the most powerful women in the UK, and included in the Guardian’s 100 most powerful people in the media for 2013.

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