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Championing Change: Advocating For Mothers In The Workplace Motherhood has long been perceived as a negative for working professionals, as some may not be able to manage the work-life balance- this reality is often known as the "motherhood penalty."

By Fazeela Gopalani

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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As an advocate of inclusion since the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants' (ACCA) beginnings in 1904, we've always been proud to support women in the workplace. In 1909, ACCA became the first accountancy body to admit a woman, Ethel Ayres Purdie. She spent most of her working life pursuing women's equality– indeed, where she saw gender inequality, she resisted, campaigned, and fought for the reform of public policy.

As a leader, a woman, and a mother, I'm proud to be part of a company that supports inclusivity and women's rights, and offers a place at the board table for working mothers. I've seen many positive strides towards closing the gender gap in the workplace in recent years. We see more women in management roles, and the global gender pay gap is slowly narrowing. And all of this isn't something I take for granted. As someone who has experienced the very real challenge of giving birth, and returning to full-time work very quickly after, I know from first-hand experience that we need to do much more to support women at this most pivotal and significant life milestone.

In February 2022, the UAE labor law increased paid maternity leave from 45 days to six weeks, with two additional weeks at half pay. It's absolutely a step in the right direction. I think all of us instinctively understand that increasing support for women who have babies can only serve to ensure that the rich talent pool represented by the female population doesn't dwindle during its childbearing years. But we still have a long way to go. This isn't just a regional issue, but a global one that requires governments as well as public and private sectors to implement policies that enable mothers to return to work and prosper in the workplace, in long-term, successful careers.

Many women are torn between fulfilling their role as a mother, and returning to the workplace earlier than they would like. There is a misconception that if a woman does not want to return to work after just 45 days, she doesn't want to return at all, or she doesn't value her job. This resonates with my own experience, and it is an issue that I feel very passionately about. It plays a huge factor for many women who feel they have no option but to quit careers to raise families. Many women, quite understandably, do not feel ready to return to work after such a short amount of time. It leaves little time to bond, heal from childbirth, and develop healthy patterns for both the mother and the child. Women should not have to make the choice between being a mother and having a career. We should have an environment where it is encouraged to do both.

For women who run their own businesses, of course, the challenges are greater. Being self-employed inevitably results in less days off, due to the time needed to invest in your own business, and the fact that not working means not getting paid. My own experience of maternity leave in the UK was similar to the UAE leave. I was running my accountancy practice, and I took just 40 days maternity leave. I felt I had no option but to return to work with an air of capability and calm, when how I really felt couldn't have been further from the truth. I was under huge pressure to attend to my clients, even with a newborn in my arms.

Related: Doing It All: Lily Kandalaft, Founder Of Malaak Mama And Baby Care

A recent report from Motherly in the US shines a light on the harsh realities that mothers are continuously at war with when it comes to navigating a growing career and family, such as mental health and workforce barriers. 52% of working mums said the cost of childcare made them consider leaving their jobs, 64% said they needed greater flexibility to return to work, and 25% of women are stay-at-home mums, compared to 15% in 2022. The report also revealed that working mothers are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression compared to working fathers, with 66% of working mothers reporting negative mental health impacts.

These findings clearly show the global need for flexibility in the workplace for working mothers, as well as a need to improve childcare options and costs to ensure that it is affordable for women to return to the workplace after becoming mothers and/or pursue a career. Of course, it's no surprise that the high cost of childcare is impacting how mums navigate their careers. According to Forbes, 70% of mums say they've had to make sacrifices in their careers to accommodate their family's needs, with 50% citing childcare as the reason. In fact, 72% of mums feel that the cost of childcare is a significant financial burden, which simply confirms that the lack of affordable childcare is perhaps the most monumental barrier preventing mothers from fully participating in the workforce.

So, what can companies do to enable working women? Start by evaluating your company's flexible work arrangements, paid time-off policies, mental health support, access to affordable childcare, and overall culture of support. A company that truly believes in supporting its female colleagues will already be taking these things into consideration, and creating policies and processes that support these very real hurdles. Returner programs also provide a supported route back to a professional role for women, and they can address many of the challenges that working mothers can face. A loss of professional self-confidence, combined with widespread recruiter bias against candidates without recent experience, can lead returners to accept lower-paid, lower-skilled work, which is both demoralizing and a huge waste of talent. Returnships and supported hiring and returner training programs are just a few initiatives that employers can adopt to support working mothers.

In the UAE, the government's enhanced maternity policy has supported women in finding a balance between homelife and careers. Its most recent proposal to allow a hybrid setup for mothers with children under 10 should be applauded. And the wider Middle East is making positive headway too. The KSA has witnessed a significant increase in the percentage of working women in the past two years, as the Kingdom continues to empower its female population. The General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia attributes the increase in female workforce to higher education levels as well as several government initiatives such as expanding childcare services, and increasing remote work and hybrid work options.

With ACCA's ongoing Women in Finance initiative expanding into Saudi Arabia and Oman, the potential to support and ensure mothers flourish is phenomenal. Supporting mothers is not just a matter of fairness, but a strategic imperative. Motherhood has long been perceived as a negative for working professionals, as some may not be able to manage the work-life balance- this reality is often known as the "motherhood penalty." But by fostering opportunities and embracing gender diversity, society can unlock the full potential of women in the workforce, leading to positive societal change and economic growth. It is everyone's responsibility to contribute to meaningful progress– our society can only reap great benefits by supporting women at every stage of their career.

Related: Striking A Balance: Juggling Parenthood And Entrepreneurship in the GCC

Fazeela Gopalani

Head, Association of Certified Chartered Accountants in the Middle East

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