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

  • 17 July 2013
  • From the section UK
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Generic pic of woman on phone
Image caption Women on maternity leave are entitled to 10 Keeping in Touch days - but neither employee nor employer is obliged to make this happen

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.

Image caption 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.

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.

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."

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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