Maternity in the workplace and how organisations can prioritise employee wellness

Childbirth is one of the main reasons many women encounter the ‘glass ceiling’. Maternity and its perceived impact on productivity is often near the root of these discrepancies and, as such, is a source of anxiety for millions of working mothers. TRUELOVE editor-in-chief Makhosazana Zwane-Siguqa and judge of Santam’s Women of the Future award 2022 believes the undue structural pressure placed on expectant mothers in the workplace cannot be allowed to continue.

Zwane-Siguqa says, “If we are going to properly address this problem then we are going to have to start by not expecting women to only be “natural nurturers”. It is also natural for women to be career driven and ambitious. Men are never asked about how they “keep the balance of family life.”

Having experienced the complex range of push and pull factors that act on women at this time, Zwane-Siguqa has this advice:

Levelling the Playing Field:

For Zwane-Siguqa, one of the first things to recognise is that the inequality that causes this anxiety is systemic. That means the first thing to address is how and why organisations may make life harder for pregnant women.  

She says, “Instead of isolating expectant mothers, we must do our planning with them in mind and include them in our annual plans. We have to start by setting career development goals that factor maternity leave in. We also need to have conversations with women who want to take maternity leave about what their career development goals are within the organisation and map with them how they will achieve them.”

Prioritising Wellness:

Part of what makes being a working mother such a difficult path to walk is that it can often feel like one is being asked to choose between being a good parent and a good employee. When it feels like one aspect of your life is succeeding at the expense of another that becomes frustrating, especially when one’s male colleagues do not seem to have to make the same sacrifices. By emphasising that your work and family are not in a zero-sum battle but rather that each is part of the whole, organisations can do a much better job of prioritising employee wellness.

Zwane-Siguqa says, “There just isn’t enough support for women to be mothers as well as driven career women. It is as if we’re being “passively punished” and isolated for wanting to have what men have. We need to be aware of this, firstly as women and get then male allies to support us. We can start by not pigeonholing people based on their gender. Once we have that mindset, working conditions will be sustainable for all parents.”

Relieve The Pressure:

Many work environments, by their very nature, are highly pressurised. The combined effects of the pandemic have also ratcheted up the pressure that many South Africans are currently feeling. This powder keg exists before you even factor in the fact that women generally shoulder much more of the domestic and child rearing workload. This added pressure can have a severe impact on someone’s mental health. As such organisations need to be mindful and realistic about what they can expect from their employees.

Zwane-Siguqa says, “The past two years have taken a toll with job losses, unemployment, and escalating living expenses. Most South African women are already under a lot of pressure to “nurture” and provide for everyone else but themselves. I feel we all could use time. We all need time and space to deliver realistic outputs at work without being made to feel that our jobs are at risk.”

Ultimately, it is a more holistic and human organisation that will get the best out of all its employees. For Zwane-Siguqa the answer to the problem is simple. Treat all staff equitably, bearing in mind their goals and capabilities.

She concludes, “Women make up around half the population and a large section of the workforce. Tacitly punishing them for deciding to have families while indirectly rewarding men for doing the same thing is not only morally unconscionable but economically dangerous. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the women of our future, can have it all.”