Putting Her in Her Place: Making the Workplace work for Working Mothers

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Ann* did not understand what her boss meant when she was warned of “wavering” commitment during the last trimester of her pregnancy. She had been an award-winning salesperson for the five years she had worked for the organization.  That month had been hard for most enterprises because of a global financial crisis. Her entire team had had a difficult time. Ann was not the only one who was struggling with clients who were barely able to keep afloat. Ann did not understand why she was the only one who got a verbal warning for her performance. When she went for her maternity leave, she had to attend meetings over pending matters in spite handing over prior to her maternity leave.

Ann’s case is just an example of the subtle microaggressions that working mothers have to put up with in Kenya. With an increasing number of women joining the workforce in Kenya, one would expect that working mothers would have a supportive working environment regardless of the industry they work in. The Employment Act of 2007 recognizes that a working mother is entitled to 90 calendar days as maternity leave. A female employee should not be asked to forfeit her annual leave in lieu of maternity leave because the Act has clear provisions for annual leave for all employees. As compared to Tanzania which only has provisions for an 84- day maternity leave if an employee has been working for an organization for at least six months, the provisions for maternity leave in Kenya apply to all mothers who have a valid employment contract in spite of the duration they have worked for an organization.

Organizations in Kenya have strived to provide supportive working environments for mothers but there are gaps that have not been fully addressed. For instance, mothers who have children with special needs or premature babies are not catered for by the provisions for maternity leave. A study carried out in 2016 by Orion Foundation showed that 91% of the caregivers of children with cerebral palsy are mothers. These mothers have to consider quitting their jobs or take on fewer responsibilities at work in order to continue taking care of their children. Similarly, mothers of premature babies often find themselves taking unpaid leave in order to continue catering for their children’s needs. The “motherhood penalty” is particularly severe for these mothers because they miss out on opportunities for career advancement or risk losing their jobs. Some of the mothers we spoke to while researching this article spoke of the difficulty of getting their bosses to give them time off to attend to a sick child. In some cases, mothers reported that they ended up being late for appointments because of the fear that has been instilled by their bosses.

The Health Bill of 2015 which was sponsored by MP Rachel Nyamai requires employers to set up nursing stations in workplaces to enable lactating mothers to express milk and store it. The implementation of the bill by organizations in the country has been slow but some progress is being made. Some of the companies that have provisions for lactating mothers as outlined in the bill include: Oserian Farm, Safaricom, National Bank of Kenya, Kenya Red Cross, Intrahealth International, PWC, Oxygene MCL, CIC Group, Liberty Life Assurance, Heritage Insurance Company, Webtribe Lt/Jambo Pay, DPO Group, Eka Hotel, Airtel Kenya and Nestle Foods, to mention but a few. Over the years, there has been an improvement in the number of mothers who exclusively breastfeed their children for six months as recommended by the World Health Organization. The National Demographic Health Survey carried out in 2015 indicated that 61% of mothers in Kenya breastfeed exclusively for 6 months. In Eastern and Southern Africa region, it is estimated that 51% of women exclusively breastfeed.  To sustain this progress, organizations who will ultimately rely on the young ones as their workforce in the future should be supportive of nursing mothers once they return to work after maternity leave.

Most working women struggle to exclusively breastfeed their children after going back to work due to lack of lactating facilities and the demands of their jobs. For this reason, there has been a proposal to increase maternity leave to 6 months, but this has not augured well with the Federation of Kenya Employers which argues that this would be counterproductive.  This provision would particularly benefit mothers who have premature babies. Premature babies have to be hospitalized for longer periods as compared to babies born at full term. By the time the mother leaves the hospital, she has very days of her maternity leave left. Most mothers end up being stressed as they try and keep up with the delicate demands of their young ones. This is compounded by the fact that most organizations do not offer flexible working arrangements.

Below are some of the steps organizations can take to make the workplace a better place for working mothers:

Identify and confront biases towards working mothers

The biases towards working mothers can be subtle but they are alive and well. It is a well-known fact that children need their mothers often but this can easily be ignored at expense of the organization’s bottom-line. These biases are supported by outdated management principles that focus on one aspect of an employee’s life at the expense of all other important aspects. An organization seeking to promote work-life balance must confront its biases towards working mothers and begin to address them

Make room for flexible work arrangements

Technology has made it possible for meetings to held using virtual platforms by people in different continents. A mother who needs to attend a sales meeting can make a phone call and conclude the sale. The changing nature of work should be embraced by all organizations for the benefit of all employees, particularly working mothers.

Support and promote working mothers

A woman does not become less competent because she is a mother. On the contrary, being a parent equips one with skills that are useful in the workplace such as empathy, ability to handle tense situations and patience.  If a promotion opens up within the organization, working mothers should have an equal opportunity for promotion.

Are you a working mother looking for a better company/organization that supports the careers of working mothers? Then do reach out to us as Crystal Recruitment Ltd is a leading recruitment agency in Kenya and we do work with amazing clients who support working mothers.