<p>It’s no surprise that maternity leave has become a hot topic of late, given the controversial government backlash against ‘double-dipping’ from employers and the government. </p>
The University has publicised in recent years their ambition to create greater educational and employment equality for women. Particularly in staffing, there has been promotion of female leadership opportunities and academic recognition.
Given these changes and active engagement with equal opportunity standards in the workplace, the university has been awarded ‘Employer of Choice for Women’ first in 2002 and several years following. This is possibly directly attributed to the staff priority awarded at the University of Melbourne Child Care Centre, thus making post-natal employment an easier transition.
Most significantly though, there have been supposed increases in maternity leave concessions for female staff members since 2008, according to a publication of the Faculty of Science… Whether maternity leave is a fair, equitable and easily accessible benefit however, is subjective.
For example, the government-funded ‘Australian Post Graduate Award’, granted to Melbourne University students with exceptional research potential, allows limited paid maternity and parental leave. A candidate’s suitability and professional excellence is theoretically jeopardised by pregnancy in the sphere of academic recognition.
The University of Melbourne Parental Leave policy outlines the provisions granted to pregnant and post-natal recovering women. Casual employees are not entitled to paid leave, thus marginalising a proportion of the university’s workforce.
Additionally, it is stated in section 8.5 of the policy that “if the University makes a decision that is likely to have significant impact on status, pay or location of a staff member’s substantive position, while the staff member is on parental leave, the University will ensure that the staff member is kept informed by their supervisor”. Presumably the university has some right to contradict the Fair Work Ombudsman’s procedure of ensuring employees return to the same job they had before leave, even if a replacement has been appointed in their place.
Clear from the application form for maternity leave through the University of Melbourne, the length of time employed with the university dictates the rights afforded to certain women in their pursuit of paid leave. Working for less than one year at the university grants women leave with no salary. More than one year but less than five can award 14 weeks full pay or 28 weeks half pay. Most rewardingly, more than five years of service allows for 24 weeks full pay or 48 half salary.
Maternity leave must commence no later than 6 weeks before the due date with any changes to this date (earlier or later) supported by a medical certificate referring to the health related benefits for either. Depending on a woman’s circumstances, these restrictions may afford greater health benefits, or (particularly in research) threaten the amount of recognised work time in fellowship, grant or contract renewals.
All women are, however, entitled to continued superannuation payments during their leave. Whilst technically, this can only be enforced through approval by a local HR representative, most employees have little trouble securing it.
Through looking at the policies of other prominent tertiary institutions in Australia, these conditions seem fairly consistent.
For those working in research, particularly within the competitive National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the career-disrupting factor of pregnancy can influence a woman’s likelihood of renewed funding and fellowships. Given time spent as an active researcher is often limited during maternity, this can therefore be detrimental to women trying to secure their careers.
Various women with the University of Melbourne shared their views on maternity leave, its effectiveness and downfalls on ‘theconversation.com’.
A particularly difficult decision for women with active careers is deciding when to fall pregnant, given the provisions of maternity leave and the effect her absence could have upon her continued research.
Dr Andrea Gogos, ARC DECRA fellow at the University of Melbourne shared, “I think a good time is as soon as you get a fellowship. This means you can take a year off, come back to work and still have a good two-to-three years of fellowship under your belt.” This calculated decision is not necessarily something women employed in non-tertiary bodies have to consider, given a career in research cannot by its very nature simply be put on hold. However, those in research seem to get some advantage over other women employed by the university given the guarantee that “if you go on maternity leave during a fellowship, you get paid maternity leave.”
Olivia Carter, senior lecturer and research fellow at the University of Melbourne, understands the potential inequities and short fallings of the system. “On any objective metric I won’t come close to competing against my peers, so the decision of whether or not I am awarded a fellowship will fall entirely to the subjective opinion of my reviewers to judge how much I would have achieved had I not had two children.”
However, according to a former chairman and member of the NHMRC Grant Review Panel who wishes to remain anonymous, there are strict regulations followed to accommodate an applicant’s illness or maternity leave. “Committee members are usually very fair when it comes to women’s professional and personal circumstances.”
It’s no surprise that maternity leave has become a hot topic of late, given the controversial government backlash against ‘double-dipping’ from employers and the government. It will likely depend on the independent circumstances of employees and their maternity leave entitlements as to whether these new legislative reforms greatly affect women working within university bodies.