Monday, December 4, 2023

Maternity Leave Still Leaves Mums At A Career Disadvantage. Here’s How This Kiwi Company Is Aiming To Change That

Even in 2021, it’s still pretty accepted that going on parental leave can come with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality from employers – meaning that not only are parents left out of the loop while on leave, they’re often left behind when they return. After two difficult maternity leaves, Ruby Kolesky knew first-hand how much room for improvement there was. So when her employers at Joyous asked her to create a more inclusive policy, she got to work!

It’s pretty remarkable how many advances have been made in the workplace over the past 30, 40 years. Typewriters to computers, faxes to emails, offices to open-plan desks through to working at home. The working life of a female in 2021 is markedly different to the life of the generation before her, in almost every single way.

However, not when it comes to being a working mother. Despite the advances in technology and leadership, the problems faced by this generation of working mothers are pretty much word for word those of the past. Lack of respect, lack of allowances, lack of flexibility. Working in print media for 14 years, it always blew my mind how little acknowledgement was given to the extra shift that all working mothers endured – one time, I wondered out loud if the business would ever bring in childcare; after all, the majority of editors were women who had children. I might as well have been asking if the business was thinking of hiring a team of dragons to run the photocopiers, so shocked was the response. And that was in an industry that was – up until you reached executive level, of course – dominated by women.

So, you can only imagine how hard that narrative of ‘every household has a stay-at-home parent’ is to shift when you look at working in a mostly male industry. For many years, there has been a push to get more women involved with STEM subjects (Science, technology, engineering and maths), but such initiatives tend to focus on recruiting students, rather than retaining employees who also happen to be mothers. Ruby Kolesky, the Head of Product for Joyous, had trained as a software engineer. When she graduated, she was the only female member of her class and when she had her first baby, she watched as her hard-earned career was sidelined by the people around her – no longer considered for promotions and pay rises because she was now a mother, but with no allowances for what that might also mean for her workload. The worst of both worlds, basically.

After switching jobs – and running her own business for a while – Ruby came to work for Joyous, an employee feedback programme designed to improve the lives of employees, and had always had the intention to makeover their maternity leave policies. However, working for a start-up, that goal was less of an urgent priority until a close colleague – Lisa, Joyous’ Head of Engineering – went on maternity leave and Ruby suddenly had a very real reason to change the status quo. “I thought, we have to do something amazing here,” Ruby says. “Based on my experiences, I could definitely relate to the problems that might come up and therefore I could put something together that would be way better for Lisa.”

Ruby (far right), with colleagues Kevin Norris (Acting Head of Engineering) left and Lisa Cunningham (Head of Engineering)

It’s a bit of an expected predicament that when you’re involved in a start-up business, all of the focus goes on feeding any fledging business and the normalities of the workplace – like HR policies – are left on the back burner, so Ruby says she was expecting this new policy priority to be a bit of a struggle. “Honestly, what founders of a company are going to be like, ‘oh, yes, let’s put together an amazing parental leave policy!’” she laughs. “But… that’s kind of what they did.”

There are six pillars to the ‘Joyous parental journey’, including reduced hours for six months on full pay, flexible return to work, six weeks of paid parental leave, extra sick leave and flexible contact, where the parent can decide how much they want to stay in the loop with work. Flexible – as you can tell – is really the name of the game here, empowering the parent taking leave to be as in control and present as possible – as opposed to the disappearing act that normally happens when someone goes on parental leave. The entire policy is available, for free, for anyone to access. That’s both an ongoing Joyous priority – “we have a history of that, so even if people don’t buy our products, they can use our conversations” – and also a priority for Ruby as well, after experiencing how isolating it can be to have an unsupported maternity leave.

“I’m seeing the benefits of the policy in action now,” Ruby says, of the difference between her experience and her colleague Lisa’s experience. “Today we had a leadership team meeting and Lisa remotely dialled in with her three-month-old on her lap… such a big improvement on what my experience was, which was by the time that I got back, I felt that I was completely alienated because I hadn’t been kept in the loop on any new people, any new decisions.”

Supporting diversity not only to enter the STEM fields but to enjoy them is really important to Ruby – as is promoting the software tech industry as a great and long-term career option. “When I was at school, no-one came to talk to us about this – I didn’t know that programming was a thing. And, it’s super fun and we get paid really well – I want to go into schools and start telling people what we’re doing, and that there are entry paths where you don’t have to go to university.”

Ruby herself found software engineering later in life – via working in an administration role on her OE for a dot-com website. “I never expected to be someone who had a degree because I came from a working class family,” she says. “But at this company, there was this one guy who was in charge of making a website and in my mind, he was a god. He was really lovely and tried to show me how to code one day.” At first, she jokes, she didn’t understand it at all but decided to enrol in a degree. At the beginning there were 120 students, half of whom were female. But by the end of the four years, there were just 10 students left – and she was the only woman. “I just found it wildly stimulating,” she says. Fast forward to her job as Head of Product at Joyous and she’s in a workplace where the environment is as creative and as collaborative as the work they’re doing.

The two founders have also taken a shared approach to the leadership – they share the CEO responsibilities in a rotating CEO model, both as co-CEOs. And now, Ruby herself will be joining that collective leadership team as a co-CEO as well. “Here I am, this 39-year-old mum of two and these two founders have invited me to have a seat at the table and the reason they’re doing that is because they think I have value to add and they want to help support my development.”

It’s a new way of not only looking at leadership but how to run a company that wants people to grow alongside them. “It’s awesome; it’s not a typical approach to leadership – but then look at what happens in most patriarchal organisations, in terms of meaningful change…nothing! Perhaps it’s time that it should be different.” she says.

For more information on the Joyous Parental Journey policy, click here. To read Ruby’s blog on her experience that lead to this policy, click here.

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