How agencies of all sizes can support parents and prevent the over-35 female talent drain

Virginia Scully
By Virginia Scully | 23 June 2023
Virginia Scully.

Financially supporting parents on parental leave is important but there’s so much more agencies can be doing says Virginia Scully. Focusing on the skills parents develop during this transformative time can bring untold benefits to your business.

According to the Advertising Council’s Create Space Census, while there are plenty of women working in the industry, there is a dramatic drop off over the age of 35.

It’s no coincidence that the average age for first-time mothers in Australia is now 30.

The Create Space Census notes that a focus on gender-neutral parental leave and return to work policies is key to stopping the over-35 talent drain. And in recent years, plenty of agencies have come out with generous paid parental leave policies.

The challenge for indie shops is that we’re hamstrung by not being part of a multinational company with deep pockets. It's difficult for an independent to compete on the same level, especially because we have so many women in the business.

In an ideal world, we would match the salary of our parents when they go on parental leave. But that could financially cripple a small independent business.

So how else can we compete?

To find a way, we went back to the drawing board. We started with working groups to better understand the challenges faced by current parents, future parents and their teams.

What we found through these groups was that the financial component is only one part of the parental leave equation. It's an important part, but there are other big challenges that sit alongside it.

For starters, becoming a parent is a period of transformation. For women, especially, it’s almost catastrophic to the life you knew before. And no one really tells you what you're getting into. You go in with a warm and fuzzy feeling. And the reality can be really quite stark in comparison.

One of the things that we talked about was whether support prior to going on parental leave could better set people up for success.

Sally McNamara, a development partner at FORWARD — the RMIT Centre for Future Skills and Workforce Transformation – says: “Perhaps we could start in workplaces by providing basic education on the mental, physical, emotional and behavioural changes of transition to motherhood.”

That led us to question how we could support, educate and provide a community around the whole journey.

That is particularly important once parents are on leave as they often spend their days in isolation, out of contact with the working world. There needs to be support to help them stay connected and keep in touch.

But there also needs to be a continuation of acknowledgement of the work parents have put in. Imagine going on leave a month before you were due a promotion. Why shouldn’t you be eligible to receive that same career advancement while you are on leave? In the same vein, we are seeing that women are disadvantaged by $300k+ when they hit retirement, so maintaining super for women is really important.

Let’s recognise that while parents are on leave, they are developing skills that are critical to today’s workforce. Things that were historically deemed soft skills but are really the hardest skills such as creativity, patience, empathy, kindness and resilience should be something that we celebrate in the workplace.

The future of work demands these skills and so we should be empowering parents to celebrate these traits. We’re going to need them in spades.

We also need to educate the wider team about the realities of parenthood. Ten years ago when I had babies (within 16 months of one another) I was a problem in the workplace. Women part-time were perceived to come at the cost of everyone around them. And leaving early for a sick child was considered to be taking time out or slacking off.

Every parent knows parenting is way harder than office work. In fact, the office felt like a holiday.

We need to educate everyone about the reality of parenthood to do away with this misperception.

The answer here is working with experts to help create tools and forums to celebrate the value of working mums who get in, do the work with precision and efficiency, and go home and do the same thing 24/7.

While the education piece is vital, FORWARD’s McNamara says we need to go that step further to help parents surface and articulate the skills they grow for even greater confidence and contribution.

She says: “My goal is for this to be seen as something that's not just an investment in women who choose to be – or can be – mothers. Rather it is a positive for everyone in the workplace who will benefit from the transferrable and often undervalued skills they can bring.

“There’s also potential to extend the valuing of caregiving skills to men. Maybe if we valued these skills more, we would see more men taking not just parental leave but choosing to work part-time, allowing their partners to work more if they wanted to.”

So next time you are looking to change jobs and weighing up one organisation’s parental leave policy over another, remember that it’s about more than money.

Yes, continuing to pay the bills is important while you raise your family but there’s also massive value in being supported throughout the entire journey.

And if you’re an agency leader considering how you can do more for women over 35 to avoid losing all that acquired knowledge, this is a great place to start.

Virginia Scully is the Managing Partner – People at Hatched.

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