Nikki Graham was promoted and given a substantial pay rise halfway through her maternity leave.
Nikki Graham was promoted and given a substantial pay rise halfway through her maternity leave.

How I got a pay rise on maternity leave

IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that when women take time away from work to have children, their careers often suffer.

Many women find it difficult to re-enter the workforce post-baby at the same level they departed, often because they go from full-time to part-time hours, and ascend the corporate ladder.

This is just one factor contributing to the gender pay gap and the lack of women in very senior - hence very well-paid - positions.

It's highly unusual to hear of women being promoted immediately upon their return to work and especially during maternity leave.

But that's exactly what happened to Sydney woman Nikki Graham, who was promoted and given a substantial pay rise halfway through her maternity leave.

This week, in the lead-up to International Women's Day on Thursday, March 8, we're putting the spotlight on women breaking barriers in the workplace.

Ms Graham works at the Commonwealth Bank as general manager of deposits in the retail banking division and has a 15-month-old daughter, Sophie.

Four-and-a-half months after giving birth to Sophie, Ms Graham was offered her current position. It was a "huge surprise" and involved a jump from managing 12 to 40 people.

"Even though it was a surprise when I was the selected candidate, I knew I had been working towards this for years, building my skill sets so I would be the frontrunner," Ms Graham told

"I was pretty explicit about my aspirations. Before I went on maternity leave I had some conversations with my manager and said: 'If this role were to come up, please keep me in mind. Don't assume I'm not interested because I'm off having a baby,'" Ms Graham said.

She wanted to see out the remaining four months of her maternity leave, so someone filled in the role temporarily before she returned to work.

Her husband also took three months paternity leave when she went back to work.

"I knew I would never get that time with my baby back and I wasn't willing to give that up, but I really wanted this job," Ms Graham said.

"I'm really grateful they let me wait a few months and hopefully the long term value I can add to the business and the team was worth it."

The fear of being forgotten while she was off work was very real.

"When I talk to a lot of my female peers who are in the same point of life, it's a very real fear of being out of sight, out of mind. Thinking: 'Will I have to reset my career? Does it go back to zero and I have to prove myself again?'" Ms Graham said.

"You never know if the business will change or what remains for you when you get back."

The finance sector has a terrible reputation when it comes to helping women ascend the corporate ladder.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the gender pay gap in Australia is highest in the financial services industry at 26.1 per cent in 2017. The gap is lowest in the public sector, at 6 per cent.

The average full-time gender pay gap is 15 per cent, meaning on average women earn

$253.70 a week less than men.

But things are improving. That gap in the financial services industry is actually down 4.7 per cent year-on-year, from 30.4 per cent in 2016.

The big bank and accounting firms are finally realising that they need to implement new policies and ignite cultural change within their organisations if they want their reputations to improve.

Now CBA even has a head of diversity and inclusion, Liz Griffin. Ms Griffin has helped introduce structured training programs and communication for employees on parental leave, a childcare centre a few buildings away and parenting rooms for women who need to breastfeed or pump milk.

There are also mandatory pay reviews for employees on parental leave.

"Gender diversity is integral to our culture and the way we do business," Ms Griffin said in a statement.

"We're continually working with our leaders and employees to build a more inclusive workplace where everyone can have a rewarding career. We work with all our employees going on parental leave to plan ahead and set career goals to help ensure continuity in their careers."

From a practical perspective, Ms Graham says the key to her achieving the elusive "work-life balance" is communicating her boundaries with her staff.

"Everyone is very clear about what my home time and my work time is. I am always out the door by 5pm so I can pick [my daughter] up from daycare," she said.

"The next few hours are blackout time. I'm not online, I don't touch my phone. I've learnt that there's nothing that's going to blow up in that two-hour period and I will be back online later in the evening."

What about that awful guilt that seems to plague working women?

"There are definitely times when I don't feel like I've giving 100 per cent to either work or parenting," Ms Graham said.

"But my daughter loves daycare so I have zero guilt about that. It just makes our time together more precious. I try to make the most of the time we do have."

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