It took Rachael Wood, a gemologist, jewellery designer and mother, two years to finally land a job after having her third baby.
Faced with a male-dominated and generally low-paying industry, she also had to hunt for a job that would offer her the flexibility to do what she loved and still take care of her children.
"It's a major challenge to balance what you want from a career and an employer who wants everything," the Dubai resident said. "Its 10 hours a day or nothing."
Globally, the number of firms planning to hire more working mothers in 2011 to slump by one-fifth compared to the same period last year, according to a recent survey by Regus, a workplace solutions provider. And the numbers for UAE do not stack up well against their global peers which, human resource experts say, show companies are reluctant to hire working mothers and their policies fail to accommodate their needs or reach levels of flexibility seen in US and Europe.
In the UAE, out of the 46 per cent of companies who plan to hire this year, only 32 per cent intend to hire more working mothers, the survey showed. This is 12 points lower than the global average rate of hiring working moms.
For UAE employers, 48 per cent were concerned about working moms' flexibility and 45 per cent worried they may take time off to have another child.
"It is not surprising to see that prejudiced attitudes come back into play with economic belt-tightening and some business are evidently still guilty of applying old-fashioned misgivings to the contemporary work environment," said Mark Dixon, chief executive of Regus.
The trend can be a setback to the economy as an ageing population means a shortage of skilled workers to choose from. "So, not having that pool of fantastic, skilled dynamic mothers in the job market is a problem," said Paulo Dias, Regus CEO for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Multi-tasking, organisation, and efficiency are the oft-quoted qualities that working mothers bring onto the table.
"Half the population is women. If companies are not thinking about how to actively include them in their growth strategies, they are losing half that potential," said Michael Burchell, Partner and Director at the Great place to work Institute.
In the UAE, 56 per cent of working mothers offer experience and skills without demanding top salaries, according to the survey.
"That makes a good balance between the potential perceived risk of hiring them and the cost of the employee," Dias said.
Companies complain about the cost of hiring working mothers when they have to replace them if the women decide to leave to have another child.
When she leaves, the company has to fill the gap either by stretching the current team members and risk lower productivity or hiring a replacement and bearing the costs of recruitment and training.
This "churn rate", or turnover rate, is a hidden cost that more companies are now quantifying, said Dias. "Expat roles come with the cost of relocation, paid housing, cars and education. It is a big cost. The churn rate in Dubai has a financial consequence. It is more present in HR people's minds."
To replace an employee, it costs about one to one and half times the person's salary, said Burchell. It can cost Dh5,000 to Dh7,000 to hire a new employee in terms of visa, documentation and airfare, employers say.
"While there are temporary costs to a company when a female leaves for a short period of time, it makes sense to offer family-friendly benefits because it reduces overall recruitment and training costs, long-term loyalty and staff moral and productivity," said Burchell.
Working mothers need policies and practices such as flexible scheduling, compressed work weeks, job sharing, on-site child care, emergency child care, take-your-child-to work days, and maternity or paternity leave, he added. UAE companies still have a long way to go before fostering family-friendly work environments and catching up with international best practices, HR experts say.
It's strange that they don't exist in this market. Policy makers in international companies are themselves expats from these markets [US and Europe]. Ultimately, that makes it even more mystifying, doesn't it?" said Christ Daniels, Managing Director of Morgan McKinley.
Employers in the UAE tend to be less flexible than in other markets, but it is an essential trait to working mothers, he said.
With a lack of on-site child care, mothers have to make other arrangements but dealing with these logistics is expensive for many women, said Dias.
"That's once concept that hasn't latched on here that's bigger in Europe: Child care at work. It would be a step forward but I don't know how feasible it be here because of the transient work force," said Wood.
Many companies in the UAE belong to the old school of Human Resources that focuses on "getting the maximum out of every resource" and squeezing employees to their limit, said Tamer Elewa, Merck Serono's Regional and Intercontinental Director of HR. Ideally, companies should subscribe to the new school of HR which focuses on the human element of HR and enables employees' well-being and work-life balance, which eventually leads to better productivity, he said.
Top ranking companies are now striving for new flexible work strategies.
Microsoft Gulf, which recently ranked the top place to work in the UAE, developed employee-centered programmes. Flexible work hours as long as employees deliver consistently, part-time work and job sharing, and providing mobile devices so employees can work where and when it suits them, are some options, saod Paula Leech, HR Director at Microsoft Gulf.
Merck Serono, which ranked sixth, also offers male employees parental leave to support their wives after, said Elewa.
"It's not just about doing what's right by women, but also by men who are fathers too, to create stronger families and good community," said Burchell, adding that companies should adapt best practices.
Working mothers are sill battling negative perceptions about their commitment to work everyday.
"I don't think it's fair but it is they way its perceived," said Wood. "I still feel there is this wall with working mothers, that they're not employable, it's an old fashioned feeling that women should stay at home with the children."
The "sexist view" of employers ignores the fact that a majority of women at a certain age leave the company for maternity but return with great performance. "A minority come back distracted and less concerned about work. That minority gives a bad perception to some employers," said Dias.
Moms need to be up to date with current world
In a competitive job market, mothers are encouraged to return to work or look for a job within three months to a year after childbirth, according to recruitment experts.
Waiting until children start school is a "point of no return" for working mothers because employers perceive their skills to be outdated, they loose their corporate spirit, to have little work drive by then, they say.
To keep up to date with their field and the corporate world while on leave, mothers are advised to:
- Be informed about current affairs, how the economy is performing, and news about your industry.
- Take online or distance learning courses in your field of specialisation
- Read the latest studies or research about your industry
- Join workshops for professionals
- Meet with work colleagues over lunch to connect with the social environment of your work to stay informed about the company and have interests other than family and children.
Sources: Paulo Dias, Regus CEO for Europe, Middle East and Africa., Sal Saeed, Director of Sales, ITXchange and Rachael Wood, working mother