Interviews

One founder's business policies were inspired by maternity leave struggles

6 min read

26 February 2018

Vardags founder Ayesha Vardag talks to Real Business about the benefits of supporting female employees and offering maternity leave, having struggled to set up the firm and support her young family as a single mum herself.

Women are seen either as serious players or as mothers. They’re not given credit for being able to do both. It’s assumed that if you choose to have children then you, unlike their father, will also choose to take it easy, rather than setting up an infrastructure to enable you to do your work properly.

So you don’t get promoted, you don’t get the big cases, the star clients, the important engagements. Employers stop investing in you. I had only five weeks’ maternity leave for my first child and three weeks maternity leave for my third. I was negotiating major project financing structures at 3am and jumping on planes to go and present my original ideas when I was seven months pregnant.

I was as serious a player as any man or any childless woman for miles around. But I was still “mummy tracked” – one employer told me I had to leave because my husband was made a partner while I was on maternity leave. Another, who hadn’t realised I was pregnant when he made a job offer withdrew it after I said I’d need a mere ten days off for the delivery of my baby. Another told me, yes, you’ll have to leave this firm, there’s no f**cking maternity leave here.

I know it’s wrong to assume women who are mothers won’t do what has to be done to keep their careers on the road, because I was willing to do whatever it took. But equally, I know however committed you are, those attitudes are still there, and as far as many employers feel they can get away with it, what happened to me still happens.

I set up Vardags to build a place where I, and the people around me, would be judged on our talent, our commitment and our success, in a modern era of equality rather than on the preconceptions set by elderly men in the 1950s about, among other things, how women react to motherhood. Employers need to make that leap of faith, employ people they believe are truly motivated and care about their career, their team, and trust them.

We encourage our people to go ahead and have children early, to avoid the risk of infertility, to ensure they can have the happiness and fulfilment of being parents, if they want it. And we trust them to stay committed to their work and to us. We carry on investing in them, promoting them, trusting them. And so far that’s never failed.

But you have to give mothers something to come back for – the real understanding that when they give up that precious time with their baby they will genuinely move forward according to their abilities, and be rewarded, they and their families, for what they give to their work. They need to know that no one, anywhere in their working world, will treat them as a second class citizen, pay the less, promote them less, invest in them less, and diminish the value of what they do just because they are also parents.

Dropping off a cliff

It’s tough to go straight from being all the time with your baby to being at work full-time. I had to do it, but it felt brutal, unnatural. What happens naturally is a slow and steady move to independence from your baby to a sense of being yourself again. Even a longing to put on mascara and high heels and go out and be with grown-ups in a professional world. That happens gradually. But most high level employers expect all-or-nothing.

Come back, but if you’re going to be serious it has to be full-time, or it’s not worth our trouble. We at Vardags don’t do that. We let our people ease their way back in, in an organic way, even an afternoon or a day at first, working up as they feel more comfortable, more independent and more into gear at work. We work out a plan that works for them. And it always works.

Cost-benefit crunch

Nannies and nurseries are expensive. Unless you’re earning a huge amount, all those costs can make the cost-benefit equation seem a lot less attractive. So, from a short-term perspective, you feel as if you’re leaving your baby for nothing. Think long-term. For every day that our senior, loyal staff come back to work, we pay for their children to go to nursery at a top-flight nursery of their choice. We care so much about having them back that we’re willing to back them even if it costs us a lot, because we value future they will have with us.

Ayesha Vardag is founder of Vardags