The reactionary howls that greeted Rachel Reeves’ maternity leave plans remind us that, in some quarters, although we have come a long way, there is still just as far to go on when it comes to recognising that (1) women have babies and (2) women can have babies and hold down jobs too. And while we might expect these attitudes in the Conservative party, we shouldn’t be complacent about rooting them out on our side of the political divide either.
Of course, the point these voices are usually making is not that the “baby” bit of this is a problem – but the maternity leave.
Let’s not fudge this issue -having staff absent from work can be disruptive. But just because it can be doesn’t mean it has to be.
Here in the Communication Workers Union (CWU), we have been trying to address these issues as they relate specifically to representative organisations. Our national youth committee has now had numerous young women members who have taken maternity leave during their term of office. Committee members are all lay representatives – they are not our employees. So while the companies that employ them are obliged under the law and their collective agreements with us to release them from duty, what about their union work?
There are all sorts of potential issues here. How can the demands of occupying a national representative position be compatible with caring for an entirely dependent very young child? And, of course, if we happened to have a number of women away on maternity leave at the same time, that would denude effective membership of the committee. This is of course the classic “impact on small organisations” scenario.
Let’s try and nail a few of these.
Funnily enough, we knew that there would be a need to manage a maternity leave vacancy on the committee some time in advance – usually around 4-5 months. It should not be something that catches people by surprise.
So, even in a union context, when decisions can sometimes take longer to make, there is time to take soundings and secure agreement – in this case for someone to be co-opted to the committee to cover the maternity leave. In our sector, gender balance is especially important, so our co-optees are women (which thus increases the pool of women active at a senior level)
Crucially, we don’t want to disadvantage the person on maternity leave – nor lose her input into decisions. So we can agree to maintain contact with her, while recognising that she may not always want to contribute to every virtual debate or email exchange.
We adopt a similar approach with attendance at committee meetings and events. If our colleague on maternity leave is able to attend, that’s great. Would we expect her to attend? No, not necessarily. The approach is designed to keep women on maternity leave involved, without making any presumptions about what that involvement would mean in practical terms.
And of course, we make sure that appropriate practical support is available, in terms of arrangements for partners to travel with mothers.
On some occasions, the member on maternity leave and their maternity leave cover have attended the same meeting. But any potential problems about who gets to use the vote associated with one place on the committee that they are both associated with, is overcome by discussion before –hand.
On one occasion, a colleague insisted on standing down from the committee because of her baby being due. The committee promptly co-opted her for the duration of her maternity leave.
These things are not charitable acts. That would be patronising in the extreme. Like most unions, we need to do more to attract and retain young activists, and young women activists. Women are after all over 50% of the UK workforce. Without the steps outlined above, we would have lost the expertise, insight, involvement and support of young women in the very leadership positions needed to promote better ways of working.
So we should loudly proclaim our support for Rachel Reeves as someone who demonstrates that the sort of work-life balance that promotes a better society is both desirable and achievable. If she can do it in that set of circumstances, the doom-laden nay-sayers will be forced to think again. The next step is for all of us in the labour movement, from national committees to local branches, is to take our cue from her.
Simon Sapper is Assistant Secretary at the Communication Workers Union