Fiona Young

A mum's guide to improving rights for all in the workplace.

Fiona Young is an employment lawyer with over 23 year's experience and has been an employment mediator for 8 years and a passionate advocate of the commercial value of kindness and respect.

International Women's day. Mother's Day. It's been a weekend of thanking women for all they do. We do deserve it and are grateful for it. I have always been an active participant in International Women's Day events and I have been a mother for almost 18 years. I have been an advocate of women's rights since I was probably around 14 or 15, when I began to realise that my upbringing and family set up based on principles of equality and teamwork, and cooperation, was unusual.

As many women have been quick to point out this year, standing up and giving us a round of applause and bunch of flowers once a year, whilst lovely, is not addressing the fact that there are still massive failings in terms of legislative structure and corporate behaviour that means that achieving true equality is still an estimated century away. Those of us that actually work in this field, observing, monitoring and discussing it every day, are seeing something more alarming. Western society appears to be slipping backwards in terms of the advancement of the rights of women. From young men being influenced on social media by mysogynistic "influencers" advocating a push back against the women's rights movements; to women themselves arguing amongst themselves and critiquing organisations that focus on raising awareness of women's rights; to workplaces, spending huge fortunes on glossy diversity and inclusion policies , while riding roughshod over specific laws, in place for decades now, protecting women in the workplace, particularly mothers. In this regard, my on going work in this field is evidence that the initial push forwards in terms of augmenting the rights of women in employment has slowed down and possibly stalled. There is either a collective memory loss that has happened, owing to a comfort felt by the 'days of thanks' social media high fives and mandatory attendance at unconscious bias training; or there is an active desire to circumnavigate the laws protecting women but to try to give a different justification for the decision. As the business man in the Barbie movie told Ken " oh we are still doing the patriarchy - we just hide it better now".

As a working mother, who happens to help employers and employees resolve difficult workplace situations - in what I aim to be a non confrontational, educational and practical way, I have dealt with more discrimination cases than I care to remember. The fact that I am still fighting the same issues, in the same jurisdiction after 20 years tells me that we have stalled where we should have improved. I do try and educate along the way. So in honour of International Women's Day and Mother's Day, I thought I would offer some of my conclusions that I have reached through the cases I see and help resolve.

Step 1.

Organisations need to understand the law, study the law, and double check if the law has been updated every single time they think about making a decision that impacts somebody's job. In Europe we are very blessed to have had a body of cases that ensure that all European countries recognise the rights of women to continue with their careers, while also raising children. Some countries do it better than others, but the laws are in place. This article is not about spelling that law out. Law is generally a boring read, and also anyone who really wants to know is welcome to pay me (or any of my esteemed colleagues here on LinkedIn) for a legal advice which we will gladly give. However, I cannot emphasise strongly enough that senior management/C-Suite executives and Board members in particular should be required to complete regularly training on their Human Resources rights and obligations in the same way that in Financial Services organisations they are required to complete regular training on money management or in Gaming organisations they are expected to be well versed in Safer Gaming requirements. The fact that there is greater emphasis on the responsibility to protect money, than there is on the responsibility to protect human rights, is, in itself, a clear reason why we have the disparity in the treatment of humans, particularly women - that continues in workplaces all over the world, today (and the topic for a very different article).

Step 2.

Stop seeing the financial cost of staff to the business and start focusing on what their human value currently is and what it can be. This means examining and understanding what the necessary actions of creating a genuine culture of inclusion looks like. Clue: it is not contained in glossy brochures telling people you are committed to diversity and inclusion. The best way for management to learn and to do this is to ensure there is a culture within the organisation of discussing staff as an asset.

Ultimately, in the same way that management regularly explore budgets, financial projections, marketing strategies, growth and development needs (with the human resourcing cost ultimately being a line on a financial output spreadsheet) good leaders need to consistently explore the actual human value of their teams, and constantly analyse what long term investment in those staff could achieve for the business. Ironically, this means getting to know staff better as people and understanding what they bring to your organisation and what their values, goals and desires are. Particularly women employees. (Do not assume all women will want to have children; do not assume all women with children resent having to return to work; do not assume women with children will work less and be absent more - do not assume anything at all - get to know staff as people and understand their needs).

Step 3

Identify core values that your organisation needs and then implement them. There is considerable value in channelling long forgotten virtues such as kindness, compassion, respect, empathy, consideration. Staff who channel and model these virtues and values will have better rapport with other staff; will be easier to manage; generally more productive and will be more liked by clients. Ultimately, there is financial value in staff who channel positive attributes. Check out any leadership podcast, blog, TikTok or whatever your chosen medium is and they will all now be talking about values based leadership, but generally the positive attributes most looked for and encouraged in leaders these days are:

Empathy, Humility, Accountability, Flexibility, Transparency, Respect, Adaptability, Patience.

The reason leaders are being counselled to model these attributes, is because it is then expected that the staff will reflect and mirror them creating a positive, healthy, respectful working environment in line with modern corporate expectations; legal obligations and rights and a movement towards improving mental health in workplaces. I have heard many stories from organisations of leaders who channelled all of the above, creating the utopian workplace, who then left, or retired to be replaced by tyrannical managers leaving havoc (and a bunch of employment claims) in their wake. Interestingly, the business owners, or senior executives, I tend to reflect on this with, after I have cleared the wreckage, had their focus on something entirely different (productivity or financial viability) and are surprised but grateful and often relieved to hear that the solution is adjusting behaviours back to more respectful and considerate and humane levels rather than something more drastic.

Looping this back round to Mother's Day for a moment: these tend to be values and attributes that good mothers teach good children to model. Those children that persistently model those behaviours tend to do better academically and are likely to go on to higher education and take on leadership roles themselves. If a workplace is an environment where those behaviours are not modelled, appreciated, valued or reflected in the slightest - unfortunately - the values tend to slip quietly away, replaced by stereotypical corporate behaviours and attitudes (which, incidentally, differ between the genders, providing another reason for the stall - as these negative divisive behaviours and stereotypical assumptions continue to be "handed down" in workplaces as each new generation joins). This is why, in my line of work I tend to meet many genuinely good, kind and respectful people who are a little surprised to find themselves involved in a workplace conflict. Just as those who recall "Supernanny" will remember that she usually fault found with the parents not the child, the same can be said of my mediations - more often than not, it is the organisational structure and lack of well modelled values that has resulted in a conflict being allowed to develop and entrench itself.

Step 4

Be an Excellent Leader. In cases where workplaces are experiencing the challenge of employing someone who has become a parent, it is the lack of empathetic and caring leadership that ordinarily leads the parties to a potential tribunal claim. An ordinarily supportive and top notch employer can cost themselves a considerable amount of money in compensation payouts if they forget to look at their women employees with the eyes of excellent leaders.

That is being :

  • patient and flexible ( making adjustments as required by law);
  • empathetic when she returns (adaptable ); and
  • transparent and respectful about any actual changes that have taken place during her maternity leave and discussing this with her at a time and in a setting that is appropriate, fair and respectful of her needs and rights.
  • Having humility and being accepting and forgiving of the changes she needs to make while adapting to her new life.
  • Being forward thinking and not waiting until forced by law to provide opportunity for new dads in the workplace to support their wives too.

Step 5

Communication. My line of work requires lots of communication, and demands listening. I cannot complete an article like this without emphasising the importance of communicating, listening and sharing stories and ideas together- brainstorming the solutions that the organisation will require to support an excellent member of the team who is going through any kind of change.

And the beauty of this, is that because I am advocating, positive behaviour modelling, communication, fair consideration of all needs and exemplary leadership, everyone can benefit.

I have seen many organisations and workplaces through my career. I can safely say with my hand on my heart that those with kind, empathetic, caring, supportive leaders, who commit time and thought to how their staff can prosper and benefit from the growth of the business - will have loyal, committed, dedicated staff. Modelling ethical attributes throughout your leadership, will create a workplace that is the envy of others (competition for staff in an ever competitive world) will result in happier staff (more productivity) will result in a more united staff (stronger teams, less management time resolving disputes). I should also say that there aren't many truly Dickensian organisations out there. The usual fall down is because the focus has been elsewhere (usually profit margins) and reflection on the human asset value has been a low priority. Usually, employers do not think about their staff until there is a problem. That is another behaviour that needs to change (and probably another article!)


I have helped many organisations to navigate difficult employment situations and come to either a productive solution that either sustains the relationship or facilitates a safe and mutually acceptable exit of an employee with dignity and learning for both. The cost of this is always significantly less than the cost of legal proceedings, or the cost of low morale and high turnover of staff. It is as simple as that. Kindness, respect and genuine human connection win every time. While settlements may need to happen, there is certainly no "corner cutting" in what a payment might be (not on my watch). It is far better for all that any settlement payments - where a relationship simply has to come to an end, are given willingly and received well. However, they are ultimately best avoided of course by ensuring we know:

  • our law,
  • our people
  • our human values

and apply them to every decision we make.

The answer to the question of how we treat women in the workplace is this. Behave more compassionately towards all and encourage, reward - no - demand compassion at every organisational level.

Look after your people and the pounds will look after themselves.

Mediation is a better way to resolve legal disputes

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