Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

Image. Advertisement:

What to expect when you’re expecting in publishing: Parental leave in the workplace

Why is such a female-dominated industry not leading the way when it comes to parental leave? Matthia Dempsey spoke to several publishers about paid parental leave and flexibility in the workplace.

The federal government may have shelved discussion of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s much vaunted paid parental leave policy, but in the female-dominated publishing industry—and in a society where women are still far more likely to be the primary carer for a new child—the issue of parental leave is a perennially important one. 

We wanted to survey the publishing industry for a sense of where it stands at present in its offerings on parental leave. Unfortunately, several Australian publishers declined to speak to Books+Publishing on the issue, while others chose to respond anonymously. 

In some cases it was difficult to see the need for anonymity: one small publisher who declined to be named said the company offers 10 weeks maternity pay on the staff member’s full salary, which seems to stack up very well against the standard legislated minimum of 12 months leave without pay—though staff do have to have been with the company for one year before they are eligible for the entitlement. 

The same publisher said its staff members were also entitled ‘to a proportion of any bonus payable, calculated pro-rata on the number of months worked in the relevant financial year’. ‘It’s lovely to get a recognition, while you’re on leave, that the company hasn’t forgotten your contribution,’ said the spokesperson.

Hachette Australia declined to comment on its policy, but its website lists ‘paid parental leave schemes’ among the benefits of working for the company (alongside summertime working hours and training opportunities).

Penguin Random House was also declined to comment for this article, however, a list of reasons to work for Penguin that appears on the publisher’s website includes the following: ‘We aim to be the best company to work for in the world—it’s part of our philosophy to provide benefits, development opportunities and a culture that beats anywhere else.’ In terms of parental leave in Australia, what would the competition look like? 

Best practice?
A survey by Great Place to Work Australia in 2012 found that business analytics company SAS was ‘hard to go past’—in the words of Business Review Weekly (BRW)—when it came to maternity leave. BRW reported that the company funds mothers for an additional 22 weeks of maternity leave on top of the government’s 18 weeks, meaning they get 10 months paid at minimum wage rates. 

A more recent survey from Great Place to Work included Thoughtworks in its top 50 workplaces. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the IT consulting company offered 18 weeks’ maternity leave at full pay. 

Interestingly, the top 50 places to work that emerged from this survey was dominated by traditionally male-dominated IT companies. So what motivates this kind of offering? 

The federal government recommendations on best practice parental leave policies state that ‘employers operating at best practice go beyond their minimum legal obligations and strive to implement initiatives that benefit their business as well as their employees’. The listed benefits of a best practice parental leave policy include ‘lower staff turnover, resulting in lower recruitment and training costs, recognition as an employer of choice’ and ‘smoother transitions for employees between work and parental leave’. 

Staff retention is another key consideration—especially as Great Place to Work Australia’s Zrinka Lovrencic estimates the cost of a hire that doesn’t work out to be three-and-a-half times the annual salary involved. 

Paid parental leave a ‘big attraction’
Lou Johnson, the departing managing director of Simon & Schuster Australia, says the publisher’s leave policy has been a positive. ‘It has been a big attraction for prospective employees. Definitely—and I have been told this,’ she says. 

Johnson was previously involved in implementing Allen & Unwin’s parental leave policy, and when she was appointed managing director at Simon & Schuster in early 2010, the publisher introduced its current parental leave policy that year. 

‘The big point to make is that it is parental leave [as opposed to maternity leave] and we offer six weeks paid parental leave on top of the government entitlements,’ said Johnson of the company’s policy.

Johnson said this policy did not change on a case-by-case basis, but that ‘there may be other considerations we make about additional ways we can support employees’. 

‘I know from experience that flexibility pre- and post-maternity leave is even more important than paid leave support,’ she said.

This view was echoed by a small publisher that said it follows ‘the government-mandated guidelines for maternity leave, and does not offer any employer-funded paid leave’, but does ‘offer flexible working hours, where practical’. The spokesperson for the publisher also said that while positions are held for the government-mandated 12 months, ‘we have had some employees negotiate to extend their (unpaid) maternity leave’.

Johnson, who believes flexibility is even more important than paid leave, says Simon & Schuster ‘actually has flexibility enshrined in our core values: “We support a flexible work environment. We value the importance of life outside work”.’

In practice, Johnson says this includes flexibility in work hours and the ability to work from home, ‘plus flexibility as much as is practicable about returning to work part-time, or on shorter work hours’ after parental leave. 

UQP’s parental leave policy falls under the University of Queensland’s policy, which publisher Madonna Duffy describes as ‘incredibly generous’. (‘It’s trickier in the private sector,’ she acknowledges.) Staff who have been with the company for more than 12 months are entitled to six months paid leave, which can be taken as half pay over a year. The company also offers job-sharing and part-time options for returning staff. 

The part-timers
The opportunity to work part-time after parental leave is an attractive one to many parents. So while Australia’s laws require a company to hold an employee’s position for a year while they are on parental leave, they may well find that employee looking for a part-time role at the end of their leave instead. 

‘We have twenty-three staff. Four are part-time and we currently have two additional people working with us a day per week bringing in specific skills,’ says Johnson. ‘We also work with a number of freelancers who have started freelancing in order to be able to gain more flexibility and as a result we are able to draw on an incredibly talented pool of people.’

UQP also has a number of staff working part-time after experiencing a mini baby boom. Over the past four years there have been seven pregnancies in an office of 15. All but one of the staff have returned, and all of those returning have come back part-time. 

Duffy acknowledges that jugging part-time staff ‘is difficult’. ‘As a manager I appreciate the challenges but as a mother I’ve been grateful for the flexibility,’ she says, adding that publishers often find it easier to adapt to flexible roles as they can read manuscripts from home, while editors are often required in the office for production duties.

A small publisher we spoke to said it ‘has been open to trying to find part-time roles for staff to return to if possible’. Indeed, the publisher said that ‘no employees have yet returned full-time after maternity leave’, and that ‘of five staff going on maternity leave, three have returned to part-time roles’. 

Another small publisher said that while it didn’t think its maternity leave offering of the standard government-mandated 18 weeks’ pay attracted employees, it added that staff retention was ‘excellent, probably due to the fact that employees are able to return on a part-time basis, if that is their preference’, and that it was open to other flexible arrangements, including ‘the possibility of a job-share arrangement, if compatible with the role’.  

So, offering part-time post-parental leave roles can be a positive, but it’s not always possible according to another small publisher. ‘The company is generous in its approach and attempts to give staff the greatest amount of flexibility possible,’ said the publisher’s spokesperson, but ‘the demands of some departments mean that return in a part-time capacity is not always possible’. 

‘We all agree in principle that there should be flexibility, but it’s clearly difficult to manage its consequences in a workplace in which material objects, like books, must be produced on a set schedule,’ said the spokesperson. 

Set schedule or not, flexibility is something many publishers pride themselves on—even if they don’t offer paid parental leave. And it’s a workplace consideration that is growing in importance, according to the Great Place to Work survey. ‘Employers need to have a range of options to attract and retain staff—working from home, flexible working hours, even flexible work spaces,’ said the Sydney Morning Herald of the survey results. ‘There is also huge flexibility around training and personal development, trends that seem certain to continue.’

In relation to flexibility and parental leave, a spokesperson for a small publisher also made the point that it is not just the immediate post-baby period that can call for flexible working hours. ‘A few years down the track, school hours and school holidays are a whole new ball-game, often requiring considerable flexibility on behalf of employees and employers.’

Johnson agrees, saying flexibility at Simon & Schuster also includes ‘giving people freedom to leave early when necessary, trying to schedule meetings appropriately’ and that the publisher ‘also often has kids in the office during school holidays (including my own)’. 

Room to improve
So the publishing industry can be flexible and in some cases fairly generous—but shouldn’t an industry dominated by women be leading the way on parental leave and family-friendly policies, rather than following behind IT firms and banks, as the Great Place to Work survey suggests it is?

Johnson says the publishing industry is ‘much better than it used to be’ on the family-friendly front and estimates it is ‘now somewhere in the middle’ of all the offerings by Australian businesses. 

‘It’s a rather old-fashioned industry,’ said another publisher. ‘Which is charming in many ways but perhaps that makes it also slow to adapt.’ While the publisher said this slow adaptation was ‘not just a feature of publishing’, it also pointed out that ‘although the publishing workforce is female-dominated, its management level is still primarily male’.

‘I don’t think there will be much change in publishing until there’s a widespread recognition across the whole workforce of the need for flexibility in working hours and the demands of balancing family with working life,’ said the publisher.

‘The problems faced by working mums are systemic as well as specific. I think women around the world are experiencing the stress of very contested territory over what a work-life balance should look like for employer and employee. I still feel as though there’s an assumption that shorter work hours means less work is being done [in those hours]. But I think that’s a national problem, maybe an international one,’ said the publisher. 

‘We perpetually boast about our demanding working hours. And consequently there’s a prevailing sense—that I think many working mums have internalised—that staff are less valuable when they’re not working full-time.’

Instead, recent research suggests the opposite may be true—at least for those working remotely. A study of telecommuters published in late 2014 found that employees working flexibly from home were likely to be more, not less, conscientious. Said Ravi S Gajendranone, one of the authors of the study: these workers ‘feel compelled to go above and beyond to make their work presence more visible, to make themselves known as assets’.

UQP’s experience also backs this up. Duffy says that the company has had ‘two of its most successful publishing years with three part-time publishers’. ‘It’s amazing what everyone has achieved in a shorter amount of time,’ says Duffy, observing that part-time staff are often particularly efficient as ‘they feel they have no time to waste in the office’.

Perhaps it’s more experiences like this that will spur publishers to better parental leave offerings—and back up employees lobbying them to do so.          



Category: Features