Maternity leave: How common is Yvette Cooper's experience?

Generic pic of woman on phone Women on maternity leave are entitled to 10 Keeping in Touch days - but neither employee nor employer is obliged to make this happen

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Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has revealed how she felt "cut off" from her job when she took maternity leave for the second time - is her experience typical?

For Denise, not her real name, the thought that she will soon have to go back to work fills her with dread.

The teacher worries about how her colleagues will treat her following her absence and she is concerned they won't understand or care about how she feels leaving her daughter for the first time.

And those fears have been compounded by the radio silence she has experienced since she left work.

"I tried to keep in touch but all communication was ignored," she says.

She texted colleagues after the baby was born but mostly received taut, single-sentence replies. She was also sent a card with the wrong baby name inside.

Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper was the first UK minister to take maternity leave

"They didn't even tell me that one of my colleagues was leaving and a senior member of the team was signed off with stress. I guess they blamed me for the extra pressure," she says.

Denise describes the school where she teaches as having a highly pressurised environment and an ambitious ethos. It also has a high turnover of staff.

"Nothing will put me off having more children but this experience has killed any ambition I had to climb the ranks, and certainly any sense of duty I have to my department. If I get pregnant again quickly when I go back, so be it - it's been made very clear the department will go on without me."

'Cut off'

Denise was speaking after ex-Labour minister MP Yvette Cooper told how she felt "cut off" by Whitehall officials when she took maternity leave for a second time.

The mother-of-three described Communities Department staff as "very unsupportive" and said she had to "fight" to keep in touch with developments.

Maternity mentoring

In 2011, accounting firm Ernst and Young launched its maternity mentor scheme to increase retention rates of female staff following maternity leave.

The firm, named as one of the top 50 employers for women in a 2013 Times poll, now sees 95% of its female staff returning from maternity leave, compared with a national average of 77%.

The scheme is made up of four sessions which give managers and staff advice on coping with maternity leave.

In feedback following the sessions, employees said it had given them "greater motivation to continue my career" and "played an enormous part in me keeping my sanity and being successful in work on my return".

Other firms with similar schemes include supermarket chain Asda and Citibank.

Members of Parliament are not classed as employees so are not entitled to any specific provision for maternity leave.

But it appears they are not the only group to experience career difficulties when taking time off to have children.

In March, a poll suggested that one in seven of 1,000 women surveyed had lost their job while on maternity leave, while just under half reported a cut in hours or demotion. More than one tenth had been replaced in their jobs by the person who covered their leave.

Maternity discrimination lawyers Slater & Gordon, who commissioned the poll, said many women appeared not to know where to turn for help and thought even the act of seeking help would damage their career prospects.

It is against the law to dismiss or otherwise disadvantage an employee for a reason related to pregnancy or maternity leave.

But what are the rules around simply keeping in touch?

One often perpetuated myth is that employers are not allowed to contact employees while on maternity leave - however the Work and Families Act 2006 makes it clear that "reasonable contact" is allowed.


So in effect, it is up to the two parties to work out the level of contact that they want to have.

Start Quote

The vast majority of women would be pleased to let go of the ropes and the ties [of work] because it is supposed to be a special time spent with your baby”

End Quote Siobhan Freegard Founder, Netmums

The employee is allowed 10 paid Keeping in Touch (Kit) days - where they can visit the office - although again, there is no obligation on either party to do this.

An employer could fall foul of sex discrimination laws if they do not alert the woman about potential promotions or reorganisations within the company.

And the Equality and Human Rights Commission says that, in particular, employers should keep in contact with an employee if they are at risk of being made redundant.

Claire, not her real name, felt she was "cut off" when she went on maternity leave from her government post, leaving her feeling "worthless". She later resigned.

She believes there needs to be monthly contact after an initial three months of grace for mother and baby.

"This could be done very informally via email or text or by pre-arranged phone call, or even letter," she says.

"It may even be nice to have another staff member make an informal home visit towards the end of the maternity leave just to bring the person returning to work up to speed with any changes and to check that their return is being managed satisfactorily."

What are you entitled to?

  • Employers should keep women informed of issues affecting them - such as promotion opportunities or job vacancies
  • The amount and type of contact between you and your employer must be reasonable
  • Contact can be made in any way that best suits, for example telephone, email, letter or visit
  • You can work for up to 10 days during maternity leave without it affecting maternity pay. These are Keeping in Touch (Kit) days.
  • You are under no obligation to work Kit days and your employer is under no obligation to offer them
  • Pay for Kit days, and the type of work done, is agreed between employer and employee

Source: Citizens' Advice Bureau

She says a "personal touch" is vital.

Slater & Gordon go a step further.

"Changes to the law to set out the obligations upon employers to communicate effectively with maternity leavers would give women greater clarity as to what information they should be receiving during their absence," says employment lawyer Kiran Daurka.

But Siobhan Freegard, founder of the Netmums website, says she believes the majority of women find it liberating to be away from work - and would find regular contact with the office stressful.

"The vast majority of women would be pleased to let go of the ropes and the ties [of work] because it is supposed to be a special time spent with your baby," she says.

Jo Swinson, Minister for Employment Relations, describes current arrangements for maternity leave as "old-fashioned and rigid".

She says that is why the government is introducing shared parental leave and pay, adding it is "committed to making sure that more businesses make the best use of women's talents throughout the organisation, from the shop floor to the boardroom".

"It will also allow women greater flexibility to return to work earlier if they wish, reducing the impact of pregnancy on women's careers," she says.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    "Jeez we are the lucky ones stop begrudging people the little things - I get my sleep and sanity and time to myself, they get maternity leave. I'm better off!"

    They *choose*, so did we.

    Now they want to be subsidised by us because their decision involves costs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    1 Minute ago
    This thread is startling in the misogyny it reveals
    I think you mean "misandry". Here's a good example:


    Men's ignoranceand laziness r the handcuffs round their wives/daughters options

  • Comment number 294.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    "I tried to keep in touch but all communication was ignored," she says.

    Probably because they had your work to do as well as their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    I've heard people, mainly men but some women also, complaining that when their women colleagues go on maternity leave they have to take-up-the-slack for the time they are away. So I guess in those circumstances the woman in question is sorely missed by her colleagues. Does the woman in the article think she is the only person filled with dread at the thought of going back to work after a holiday?

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    279. nagivatorjan

    I couldn't disagree more. I've experienced most versions (single, couple, family with one working, single parent, and family with both working).
    I've always worked. By far the cheapest and easiest time was as a singleton. House prices now are approx 8 x higher. My salary is about 3-4 times higher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    In the 60's you chose a career or a family if you were a woman. We had only just got beyond having a career or getting married. When the right to return to the job came along it was greeted as equality with men who had a career and children without spoiling their progress. It is still a choice to take 12mths off or less if a career matters. Maternity leave is too long to leave employers in limbo

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    I don't know how much of it is down to maternity leave or gender, but the way things have been in recent years, esp in relatively basic jobs, is that if you are off for ANY reason, sickness, children, even holidays, your job is essentially at risk, other people start filling in and taking over and you return to a very different and occasionally hostile new dynamic to find yourself near redundant

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    #273 you want to know how many men have the same gripe about women progressing on their backs? Welcome to the club! Ultimately as you said, they could have made one of you redundant, they didn't, and in the middle of a depression I'd be grateful, then I'd go find a better job!

    #275 really, do you need work colleagues to give you a sense of self worth? Words fail me

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    Maternity/paternity paid leave is a privalidge hard won by our forefathers,if a person feels " cut off" when choosing to take this freebee don't have children or don't take it,we can't have everything in life we are not owed anything by other people just because we make a personal choice they(employers) have no say in.Cooper is the archetype of the out of touch no nothing political class,PATHETIC!

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    @ 279 what are you smoking exactly? Children are incredibly expensive there's no way I'd have any disposable income if I was feeding and clothing a child on my income - as a single person I have plenty.

    Jeez we are the lucky ones stop begrudging people the little things - I get my sleep and sanity and time to myself, they get maternity leave. I'm better off!

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    The reason why they are cut off is that their resentful workmates have an extra workload and wages are suppressed to pay for someone else's baby.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    This thread is startling in the misogyny it reveals, the bitchiness of 'non-working' mothers, the hyper neediness of maternity leave mothers, the social selfishness of the single, and the viewing of children as expensive,superfluous artefacts. The UK really doesn't like them much.
    And very few people can spell 'redundant'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    On the "Don't have kids if you can't afford them" point. How much money does one need to have in order to breed?? Lets say you earn £20,000 currently and intend to take off 4 years off work (then your little one will be starting school) do we all need to save £80k before starting a family?

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    @ 267.Liggy

    "I am about to have my 3rd Child in September... I will take off the time needed"

    It sounds like having children IS your career...

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    Wonder how it is that females leave school with better qualifications, within a couple of years are being paid 20% less than men. Have a child, just like men do, and suddenly they're valueless to work. Start giving all pupils childcare lessons and then making men pull their weight in looking after their own children. Men's ignoranceand laziness r the handcuffs round their wives/daughters options

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    It is difficult for men who get no time off with pay, to watch women swanning off and having children as and when it suits them - then return to work.

    There are enough people in this world, if we keep making children there will be even more, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    272 martiniqueen
    In general, a larger part of a single person's income goes on such things as mortgage, fuel, food (can't take advantage of BOGOFs). Most houses have a minimum of 3 bedrooms, so the cost is probably identical, as is heating the damn thing. Holidays cost more. The only saving graces are a slightly lower council tax and the ability to take holiday off-peak - and that's being eroded

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    I was treated very badly on mat leave. I went to tribunal. I won. I now have another beautiful child which I may never have been able to afford before the whole sorry affair, a new house and I work part time so I can manage my family. New mums, exercise your rights and don't waste time with the whingers who tell you you are wrong to have your children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    the world is vastly over populated we are all headed for complete and utter disaster if we keep reproducing. Steps should be taken to curb population growth worldwide..making it easier and nicer for ladies when they are pregnant will be another factor in damaging the mother of all of us - mother earth. One child policy

    Are you for real? Written a book on eugenics recently?


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