“To be offered the next stepping stone in my career was amazing because I could take that time off, I could go on maternity leave, be with my daughter and be safe knowing I had a great job to come back to, and that I was valued by my company,” said Nudzejma, equipment hire and studio manager at a Sydney photography and film studio.
“I actually not only came back to a great job, I came back to an even better job than when I left. And to me, that makes me feel like one of the lucky ones. “
Nudzejma said she did not personally know any other women who had been promoted while on maternity leave, but she knew many women who said they felt uncomfortable and devalued after losing their jobs while taking time off from a full-time job to have children.
A friend, who works in a different industry from hers, was pregnant at the same time as Nudzejma and was fired while on maternity leave.
Nudzejma works as Equipment Rental and Studio Manager at SUNSTUDIOS in Alexandria, Sydney. Source: SBS / Dijana Damjanovic
Eventually, Nudzejma said, her friend sued her employer.
“They finally settled down, they gave him some more money,” Nudzejma said.
“She didn’t do it for the money. She did it because she felt they were wrong to put her in that position.
“And she really wanted to be here today to talk about it.
“But she had signed a non-disclosure agreement. And her lawyer advised her not to talk about it, even anonymously.”
Nudzejma said she felt a sense of belonging to her employer, Sydney-based company SUNSTUDIOS, as it gave her flexibility. She has been with the company for seven years.
“You are made to feel like your life outside of work matters,” Nudzejma said.
“It’s really very motivating to come back to work and give it your all. And to continue to invest in this company.
“It makes things really easy. And that’s something I’ve heard from many employees here.”
SUNSTUDIOS said in a statement that Nudzejma was promoted because she “consistently demonstrated the right skills for the job” and for her industry experience. He also described her as an “incredibly talented leader on our team”.
Nudzejma was born in Yugoslavia, in what is now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and said she remembers the progressive approach of working mothers there.
Nudzejma pregnant with her daughter Laura. Source: SBS / Provided
“I think my mum actually had better rights at work than Australian women these days,” she said.
“For example, when she went on maternity leave, she received a full year of full pay.
“And she could take me to work if she needed to in emergency situations. And she could take as much time as she needed to attend to me if something happened.
Michele O’Neil of the Australian Council of Trade Unions said Australia’s paid parental leave scheme had a lot of catching up to do.
“Parental leave is something that workers and unions have fought for in Australia, for many decades,” she said.
“And in fact, we still have one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the developed world.”
Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, said Australian women face high levels of workplace discrimination based on gender, pregnancy and caring responsibilities.
“This discrimination affects all areas of women’s working lives and throughout their lives, including lower rates of full-time work, lower wages, lower retirement savings, fewer leadership opportunities, high rates of discrimination against mothers and high rates of sexual harassment,” Ms Jenkins said.
Keren Wallace, 39, was made redundant while on maternity leave in August 2020. At the time, she was working in corporate governance at NBN Co in Sydney.
Keren Wallace said she didn’t expect to be laid off while on maternity leave. Source: SBS / Dijana Damjanovic
“I wish there was a little more humanity in the process,” Keren said.
“I understand there was organizational restructuring going on. But being at home, you’re disconnected from the workplace – you’re already in really uncharted territory, trying to learn how to be a mum for the first time.
“And then being chased away with what seemed like, no support from the organization that I had given eight years of my life to, was really tough.”
Keren said the firing process at NBN Co exacerbated her postnatal depression and caused her to question her self-esteem.
A spokesperson for NBN Co said that after completing the initial build of the NBN network in 2020, the company has begun to transform its operating model as it moves into a more mature operating phase.
NBN Co issued a statement to SBS, referencing its policies and procedures, and indicating that termination cases are handled on a case-by-case basis with flexibility where possible.
The spokesperson added that employees whose roles are impacted due to operating model changes are being offered the opportunity to be redeployed to other “appropriate and open” roles, including employees on maternity leave. .
Keren did not file a complaint with NBN Co or any government organization.
She alleges that it was particularly difficult to discover that the person replacing her position while she was on maternity leave was keeping a “modified” version of her job under a new title.
Keren, her husband Dan and her daughter Madeline. Source: SBS / Provided
A 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission on a survey of 2,000 mothers found that nearly one in five mothers, or 18%, said they had been made redundant, restructured or made redundant or that their contract had not been renewed during pregnancy, when they applied for or took parental leave, or when they returned to work.
But it’s difficult to get a more detailed look at women’s experience in this space, with the report also finding that 91% of mothers who experience discrimination do not file a formal complaint, either within their organization or with a government agency.
Helen Dalley-Fisher, of the women’s equality advocacy network Equality Rights Alliance, said pressure on new mothers is compounding the data problem.
“The system we have now is that women can file a complaint about the fact that they’ve lost their job, whether it’s labor law or discrimination law, and if you’ve just lost your job and you have you have a little baby, you honestly don’t have the energy to be able to deal with that,” she said.
“So we suspect it’s happening a lot more often than reported, but we don’t see the data coming in.”
Helen Dalley-Fisher of the Equality Rights Alliance said employers would view women as less burdensome if more men took paid parental leave. Credit: Provided
Ms Dalley-Fisher said Keren’s story is common and cases where women are fired while on maternity leave can be seen as discriminatory.
“The big problem we have with situations where someone is fired or otherwise harmed when they come back from caring for a child or a baby is that it’s really hard to tell whether the person is being discriminated against or not – you can have very genuine dismissals when the person is genuinely out of a job,” she said.
“But there is always a risk that this unconscious bias affects the decision of who loses their job.”
Ms Dalley-Fisher said if someone is on furlough at the time of the dismissal process, it can contribute to biased decision-making by management.
“The caregiver is not in the workplace to prove themselves,” she said.
“And then you have managers deciding which person within a particular category of employees should be fired, who might start to feel the effects of unconscious bias, where they think to themselves that the work being done by a woman is not actually as good as the work done by a man.
“It’s an unconscious process.”
One of the ways to deal with the problem of unconscious bias, she said, was to address the idea that childcare is something only women do.
“We need more men to take paid parental leave,” she said.
“At the moment, only 12% of all those who take paid parental leave are guys, this needs to change, because otherwise employers will always see women as a handicap, because they have dependent children.
“It takes two to tango, frankly, dad should do their part.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission defines pregnancy discrimination as “when a woman is treated less favorably than another person because she is pregnant or is at risk of becoming pregnant”.
Under the Sex Discrimination Act, a woman who returns to work after maternity leave has the right to return to the same job she held before going on leave. If the job no longer exists, she is entitled to another job that is as close as possible in terms of remuneration and responsibilities to the one she held before.
The Australian government offers Parental Leave Benefit to parents working at the National Minimum Wage ($772.60) for up to 18 weeks.
If you believe you have been unfairly dismissed, you can contact Fair Work Australia on 13 13 94.