Group Organisation and People Development Director in 2013. Her corporate background includes Kingfisher, General Electric, PwC, BAA and Laing O’Rourke, in a number of senior business, HR, and external consulting roles over a 20-year period. She has also been a Trustee at Regents College and NED for Laing O’Rourke, Cambridge University & the CEB Talent Advisory Board. Sharon is the author of Heathrow’s Terminal 5: history in the making.
- What spurred Vodafone to develop this innovative maternity policy for its employees?
For us in Vodafone, when we look at our customer base, 50% of our customers are women, so whether it’s outside the organisation, or inside the organisation, then women are a hugely important part of Vodafone’s future and future success. When we look inside the organisation, we have got ambitious targets about a certain percentage of our leadership population being women. When we were looking at
where we are today, and where we want to get to, very quickly we get into the different stages of women’s lives, and motherhood is often a critical moment for women. We found that we were losing women, particularly on the return from maternity leave. Some of that was about not coming back, or coming back and then leaving in a shorter period than you would have expected. That prompted us to do some analysis, and come with not just a good minimum standard of fully paid maternity leave, but also an initiative on the “transitioning back” part of it.
Those were the drivers for us to think a little bit differently and a bit more radically in this area, and two years ago we decided to commence this policy, where women working at all levels across Vodafone’s 30 operating companies in Africa, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the US will be offered at least 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave, as well as full pay for a 30-hour week for the first six months after their return to work.
- In our recent Safe Motherhood report, we found that over one-third of women surveyed reported that their pregnancy had hampered their advancement in their workplace, and 14 per cent felt actively discriminated against. What are your thoughts on statistics such as this?
The fact that you’ve shared that statistic, we can imagine that in such a big world, of course that’s going to be happening somewhere. From our point of view at Vodafone, we could not be clearer as an organisation, and this comes from our CEO down, that women are really important to us. We have targets, and we communicate internally and externally about why this is important for our organisation. We have huge leadership commitment backing communication and we put policy in place and education and all the things that big companies could and should be doing to try and send the right signals, as well as practically put in place the things that help women. I would make the point that companies have a big responsibility in this and I think we have shown that we are up for that and we have shown leadership in this area.
I also think that as women we have some responsibility as well; what’s really important is that women communicate with their employers. Now what is happening is that women are being clear with their employers about what they need to make returning work. So I think there is also some responsibility for us as women to feel like we have got a part to play in this relationship so it is a positive one.
- Why do you think it is important for large corporations such as Vodafone to show initiative in this area?
The reality is, in large organisations you probably have a little bit more money and you have HR functions that have time, capacity and expertise to do some of this thinking. Of course if what we can do is shape some different thinking about mothers and maternity, you can set an example, that other organisations, particularly large, but also very small, then are interested in. If you can prove that this different way of thinking actually has positive benefits, then I think other organisations who may not have thought about it, may become inquisitive and think about what they are doing.
The reality is that big companies can think about things from a more macroeconomic point of view. Companies like Vodafone can think in terms of billions, and frame world problems in a bigger way and that then catches people’s attention. So, when you talk to other companies and to governments about the need to do things differently because it will have a positive impact on the economy, then that gets people’s attention faster. Big companies have an opportunity to capture people’s imagination and to get them to think differently and hopefully act differently, which is what we have tried to do with this policy.
- The theme of Safe Motherhood Week this year is that safe motherhood is important for everyone. Do you think maternity policies such as Vodafone’s can have a positive societal effect, as well as that for the company and its female employees?
Of course, and all the statistics show that keeping women in employment has enormous economic benefits, and there is that dimension of it. Particularly when you look at emerging markets, because when you look at how women spend their money, it’s on their families. Therefore, keeping women in employment is really important. The second point is that, it is great that the mother, particularly in those countries where the policies weren’t as good before, can stay at home a little bit longer and have that transition back into the workplace. We have had women tell us that this has been able to change the way they approach having a family and it has made things so much easier than having to come back after eight to 12 weeks – and full-time. That would be physically and psychologically demanding. Women are still hormonally transitioning after giving birth. That extra time really helps them from a medical point of view to get themselves a little bit more ready and balance both work and home.