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An unusual new policy for working mothers

(photo by Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post)

On Friday, global telecommunications company Vodafone Group said it would be setting a global minimum for its maternity leave policy, requiring that, by the end of 2015, all of its 30 operating companies around the globe offer at least 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. That in itself was an unusual move, yet the most interesting detail in the announcement may be the company's new policy that kicks in once the leave is over.

For the first six months after returning from maternity leave, new mothers at Vodafone will be able to work just 30 hours a week but continue to earn their full-time salaries. Unlike flexible work policies that many women must individually negotiate with their managers, or reduced-hours arrangements that likewise reduce their salary, the new benefit is aimed at helping women transition back into their jobs after giving birth without derailing their earnings or careers.

"We think it's unique in its nature," said Chuck Pol, president of Vodafone Americas. "It gives us an advantage when we're working with female employees, not only in our business today but as we recruit people."

He may be right about it being a first. Anne Weisberg, senior vice president at the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, called it "very unusual" and "the first of its kind." Weisberg said the policy could help the company retain women during the critical first year following maternity leave, when many struggle to balance the demands of work and a baby on what is almost always very little sleep. "What Vodafone is doing is saying this is a talent management issue for us, it's not just about complying with legal requirements," she said.

Indeed, talent retention was one of the very goals Vodafone had in mind when it designed its new policy. On a global level, women comprise roughly 35 percent of Vodafone's employees, but only 21 percent of its international senior leadership team. Moreover, 65 percent of the women in the past who opted to leave the company following maternity leave did so within the first year.

Sharon Doherty, a director at Vodafone who was the architect of the new policies, went looking for ways to address those numbers. She noticed that in Italy, Portugal and Romania, where mandates are in place for companies to help women transition back into the workplace after maternity leave, the company's retention rate was higher. "That led me to ask more questions and find out why," she said. She decided to pitch the idea of a company-wide global policy.

Although who qualifies for the benefit will vary somewhat by country, Pol said the reduced hours program for returning mothers and the 16 weeks of paid leave will apply to all full-time female employees in the United States. The company's U.S. population is relatively small (roughly 500 of the company's more than 90,000 global employees work here), but those women will see a substantial benefit increase.

Until now, women who worked at Vodafone in the United States got 60 percent of their pay for 12 weeks as a maternity leave benefit, and had no benefit for transitioning back on full pay at reduced hours. The new policy will go into effect April 1. Pol said the company has yet to work out if that shortened schedule will mean fewer days per week or fewer hours per day.

Vodafone's 16 weeks of paid leave puts it at the high end of what many companies offer in America, which is one of the few countries in the world where paid maternity leave is not mandated by the federal government. While some tech companies have upped the ante, with Google offering as much as 18 weeks, most companies offer far less. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in 2012, the average length of fully paid maternity leave offered by even the most generous companies—those that made Working Mother's annual list—was just seven weeks.