With women making up just 22pc of the Dáil, we have a little ways to go before gender parity is reached in our Government. Yet a recent move hints that Leinster House is becoming at least a little more, well… woman-friendly.
It was announced earlier this week that female TDs and senators can now breastfeed inside the Dáil and Seanad chambers. Various arrangements had now been put in place, or were soon being implemented, to help support women Oireachtas members who were new mothers, including maternity leave support, an on-campus crèche and adoptive leave.
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Dáil chairman Seán Ó Fearghaíl noted that every effort must be made to encourage greater involvement by women in Irish politics.
It’s a heartening encouragement, certainly, but the Government has a little running to do before they catch up with some of Ireland’s most parent-friendly workplaces.
It’s long been a given that the tech giants have blazed a trail in terms of creating staff-friendly offices. Google’s nap pods, Twitter’s baristas, Airbnb’s Irish pub and Microsoft’s nail bars are already the stuff of legend. Yet it’s often their sweeteners for parents, and indeed for anyone looking to redress their work-life balance, that really see these companies come into their own.
Facebook’s HQ in Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock, for instance, offer a number of resources to all employees in relation to family life (mums and dads, but also caregivers for older parents and so on).
On-site, there are mothers’ rooms to breastfeed in, store milk or pump in privacy. Breastfeeding workshops are available. Paid baby/maternity leave for mothers is in line with the legal structure of 26 weeks’ paid leave and 16 weeks’ additional maternity leave; fathers are paid four months’ baby leave on full pay and benefits. Babies, children and partners are allowed onto the campus. Other supports include surrogacy assistance, adoption assistance and ‘Back-up Care’, where people can access up to 12 days yearly of last-minute childcare or eldercare when their regular care falls through.
Kate Griffiths, an industry marketing manager, has been a Facebook employee for nine years. She gave birth to her first child, Harry, 18 months ago.
Among the first benefits that Kate enjoyed as an expectant mum was Facebook’s Baby Cash offering – an undisclosed sum to help with big-ticket expenses like buggies, cribs or even college funds. And then, there’s the Nest Room.
“It’s a place where you can take time out if you’re struggling with tiredness or morning sickness, and they make sure you’re aware of (that room),” Kate explains.
“What’s really valuable is not having to be tied to the desk at 9am – the focus here is on what impact you make and what you get done as opposed to the times you are here.”
It has long been theorised that the tech companies offer such a utopian campus purely to keep employees at their desk and in the workplace longer than they might even realise. But the truth is that in a competitive market, and especially at a time when we are almost at full employment in Ireland, there is a concerted push to keep and incentivise valued workers.
But something else is afoot too. The fact that Facebook’s many benefits are open to everyone, not just parents, contributes to a healthy, positive working environment. It also eliminates a toxic, ‘us and them’ situation between parents and non-parents.
“Facebook are just really aware that everyone has a full life they need to live,” says Kate. “A lot of our competitors within the tech community have similar (benefits) and they really are getting the best value from their employees.”
Over at Diageo Ireland, plans to extend four months of paid parental leave to mothers, fathers and employees who become parents via surrogacy and adoption were announced recently. Already, their workplace offers breastfeeding rooms, on-site health facilities and flexibility for all employees. They have invested in Skype-like technology so that employees can work more flexible hours, and offer a suite of interventions around maternity coaching. And their Flexible Benefits scheme means they can offer employees the chance to opt out and take cash in lieu of benefits like a car or health benefits.
“We want the policy to be in line with our inclusivity and diversity ambitions,” reveals HR Director Sandra Caffrey. “We’ve had a really positive response to the family leave policy. Lots of future dads have contacted me to say how excited they are. Employees feel like we value them, but fundamentally, it’s also the right thing to do.
“We are clearly in the luxurious (financial) position to be able to make big bold stances like this, but really it’s about creating conditions for everyone to be at their best, whether they’re parents or not.”
A lot of smaller and medium-sized businesses have noted that they can’t afford to offer myriad incentives to employees, but many are still striving to offer an easier way for parents to exact a work-life balance.
And while breastfeeding rooms and parenting coaching are fantastic benefits to enjoy, many parents would be happy with a degree of workplace flexibility.
“Of course not all companies can afford benefits like paid maternity leave – for SMEs it’s an added financial burden, for start-ups that are usually strapped for cash in the first number of years,” says Rosemary Delaney of Women Mean Business. “So if financial support is not immediately possible, there are a host of non-financial supports that can come into play. I would like to see a more transparent dialogue in the workplace where having a child is embraced. Offer part-time for a period; offer flexible hours; offer remote working with jointly agreed targets; introduce ‘family’ days; and above all, treat all staff, with or without children fairly.”
Helen Walshe, MD of Employmum, a recruitment consultancy designed to promote workplace flexibility, has worked with countless parents trying to balance home and work life.
“Savvy employers want to retain staff, so they are starting to offer flexibility so that parents can plan their lives accordingly,” she explains. “There’s a fear that ‘flexible’ work means working from home, but some workplaces have had such success allowing parents to start work at 9.45am.
“We’ve placed solicitors and financial controllers on three-day weeks. There’s an assumption that three-day weeks are only for junior roles. And 30pc of people on flexible hours are male.”
Certain sectors are more amenable to flexibility than others: “A big chunk of the roles are in finance – we see a lot of two-hour-a-week accountant roles. A lot of mums work 9.30am to 1.30pm. A lot of legal secretaries do a job-share. In the legal, customer care, sales and marketing areas, we’ve noticed a positive shift.”
Over in Galway, ICE, a recruitment and training company, are floating a four-day work-week pilot scheme next month.
“For us, it’s about maintaining productivity and creating better energised and more focused staff,” says its MD, Margaret Cox. “If we could change the culture to be more accepting of these types of initiatives, employees would recognise that it’s a huge thing for valuable employees, in terms of picking their employer of choice.
“In smaller organisations, there should be an acceptance if someone says, ‘Gosh, the baby is sick’ or ‘I’ve got to go to the doctor’s’,” she adds. “Employees need to accept that we have lives outside of work, and mothers in particular carry a greater burden when it comes to home caring.”
And implementing this flexibility is easier for company bosses than one might think. “If someone wants to leave work at 4 and then tidy things up on email at 8 o’clock when babies have been put to bed and dinner is off the table, it would make a huge difference,” says Cox. “The thing is, women are so committed to their jobs that they would be delighted with an arrangement like this.”
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