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When it comes to maternity leave, numbers in UAE just don’t add up

It's time to recognise that women can thrive both at home and in their career after having a baby

New mothers currently get six weeks paid maternity leave in the UAE Unsplash
New mothers currently get six weeks paid maternity leave in the UAE

Despite a change in the labour law this year, UAE maternity leave still lags behind international best practice.

Women in the UAE are, since February 2022, entitled to just over six weeks paid leave, with a further two weeks at half pay.

In contrast, the UK gives mothers 39 weeks of statutory maternity leave, six weeks of which is at 90 percent of your salary.

I was living in the UK when I gave birth to my child but my own experience of maternity leave actually mirrored the UAE standard quite closely. I was running my own accountancy practice so it was very different to most working mothers in the UK.

I took six weeks leave and then had no choice but to get back to the office and put my game face on, albeit with a baby in tow. I felt immense pressure to get back to my clients and didn’t want to appear incapable. 

I’ve lived in the UAE for many years now and I see many women in my industry 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 only six weeks, they don’t want to return at all. Or they don’t value their job anymore.

This resonates with my own experience and it is an issue that I feel very passionately about. 

At ACCA we seek to support women at key moments in their careers. Women in Finance is our year-long initiative that focuses specifically on the challenges women face at different stages of their work lives.

We have highlighted that the gender gap increases at pivotal moments during a woman’s career, such as when she starts a family, and this is largely due to a lack of maternity leave.

With countries such as the UK, Greece and Bulgaria providing maternity leave from 39-58 weeks, it’s clear to see that women are facing huge challenges in the UAE.

There is an enormous difference between the experience of motherhood for a woman living here, compared to other countries with more favourable laws. 

This is a huge factor in the number of women who leave their jobs here to raise families. It’s not necessarily a choice but more a necessity, as many women do not feel ready to return to work after such a minimal amount of time.

It leaves little time to bond with their baby, heal from the physical trauma of childbirth and develop healthy patterns for both mother and 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. 

Ideally, international best practices should be adopted, and a more realistic set of rules be developed that can be used both in the governmental and private sectors.

I believe it’s not just down to the government to set out best practices, though. It is also the responsibility of private sector employers to put maternity leave in place that reflects how they value their female employees.

Employers need to recognise maternity as a valid career break and address the issue that they are losing incredible talent because they do not provide the appropriate level of support. 

Companies have the right to set their own HR policies, rules and regulations, as long as they are meeting the minimum government guidelines.

Government legislation is guidance only so the ability for a company to put in place better maternity entitlements is there and employers should be held accountable for that. 

Although the number of days and months of leave is significant, other policies can be implemented to create a more considered approach around the return to work.

Flexible working hours, working from home and reduced hours or shared roles should all be considered, as should the need to protect women from losing their jobs when they announce their pregnancy.

In the UK we’ve seen many success stories of women sharing their childcare responsibilities with their spouse. Paternity leave is important in order to create a well balanced family life, to allow the father to bond with their child and to maintain a healthy equilibrium between the parents. 

It’s become apparent that fathers want to take a more proactive role in the raising of their children.

UAE law states that a father is entitled to three days of paternity leave – a far cry from the 14 days provided in the UK.

We don’t see private employers adopting this here and that needs to change, as well as the mindset around men caring for their children in the first stages of life.

Looking back, I was not ready to return to work physically, emotionally and mentally. I felt I hadn’t established a routine, I was not in a healthy sleep pattern, and I wasn’t ready to give my job the time and attention I’d like to.

I had tremendous “mum guilt” thinking about missing my baby’s firsts and found myself at my desk wondering if I had remembered to pack the essentials in the baby bag. 

There is a lot that can be done to address maternity leave in the UAE and it’s a collective responsibility. The government is moving in the right direction, but more can be done.

Private companies need to also recognise the responsibility they have towards their staff and the immense benefit of a workforce feeling valued and appreciated.

There is a direct correlation between women taking career gaps and women being promoted and, as responsible employers, we need to recognise that maternity is a valid reason for a career break.

It doesn’t mean that a woman is less capable or not taking her role seriously.

We need to do more to remove the stigma around women needing more time to adjust to a growing family unit and this should be celebrated, not penalised.

Fazeela Gopalani is Head of ACCA (Association of Certified Chartered Accountants)

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