The topic of parental leave in Africa is a commonly contested issue that is brought to question time and time again. In many parts of the continent, actual maternity and paternity leave are non-existent. 

Distiller giant, Diageo have made a huge step in a positive direction regarding parental leave by being the first large scale employer in Africa to provide their staff with six months paid maternity leave and four weeks paternity leave on full rate pay in all their markets across the continent.

Diageo made this announcement in conjunction with their move to increase parental leave in their Western and Asian markets as well.

This is a big step in the corporate world given that very few (if any) employers in Africa are permitting six months of paid leave – which makes it easier for women in the workplace to be both mothers and have a career with little stringent time complications.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that 80% of women in Africa and Asia are deprived of maternity leave. In terms of paternity leave, the numbers are even lower with only eight countries out of 54 giving fathers more than a week’s paternity leave.

This debacle has made it difficult for African women who are/want to be mothers to progress in the workplace because it forces them to choose one or the other but never both.

SLA contributor – Diana had a sit down with HR director of the Diageo Africa division, Caroline Hirst, and Clemmie Raynsford, Head of Market Communications to learn about the steps taken and reasons for making such an empowering initiative come alive. 


Why did Diageo decide to do this now as opposed to say 2 – 4yrs ago?

Caroline: We have been really progressing on the gender diversity perspective, we’ve worked really heavily on representation on a leadership level and in every aspect of our business and in particular generally where women are underrepresented.

That has been really successful. However, we have recognized that the gender diversity agenda can’t just be about how many people of which gender you’ve got doing what things.

It’s much more a breakdown of stereotypes, how do you create an environment where everybody can succeed, that’s really our aim.

I was really keen to bring this policy in Africa because I think you can be forgiven for thinking that the gender diversity agenda is all about enabling women in Africa to do what men do which is not the case.

It’s about all of us think differently about how we work together and so having this shift around parental leave and particularly the shift around paternity leave across Africa has not only given men more benefits and women too but it’s also got people talking about the diversity agenda as something that’s relevant and a means to change for everybody.

Clemmie: It’s about us being a supportive employer and saying you can take more time with your family.

With the beverage industry being such an old fashioned industry, most of our big breweries in parts of Africa took it positively commenting that it’s a really pioneering step that’s actually saying we are an employer first and we care about our people and giving them the right to the environment to do their work in the best way possible.

If they need to be at home they can be and have their family and have that balance.


As a working mum, what does this new initiative by Diageo mean to you and your family?

Caroline: I was fortunate enough that when I had my children, the UK legislation already allowed mothers to take up to 40 weeks off.

When I had my daughter and took 6 months off leave, the main consideration for me as the primary bread-winner in my household was how would I afford to take that much time off?

When I had my son, I took a year off, most of it being unpaid so I feel that if this policy was in existence then, it would have made a lot more financial sense.

This new policy will make a difference for women across Africa. I also hope that more men will feel welcome to take the 4 weeks paternity leave and spend time at home with their families.

One of the things that we are seeking to do in our business is to make it okay for anybody to be a parent as opposed to it being something that only women can talk about or experience fully.

Clemmie: I think what’s great about this policy is that not only does it take the financial pressure off which probably is sort of 70-80% of the main factor.

But also, in saying that your company will give you full pay for 26 weeks off, it’s also saying that slightly the company is expecting you to want to and is absolutely fine with you taking that extended period of time off.

It’s the combination of being allowed and your employer saying – we support you and we know that you have a family, this is a crazy new stage in your life so not only will we help you financially but here is some extra time you most likely need.

The feedback from a lot of our African markets included people just suddenly feeling that sense of support that never existed before.

It has been very positive from our various East and West Africa businesses.

Why can’t fathers get the same amount of time off as mothers do?

Caroline: In the future, we could look at a possible potential for that.

Our intention is to create an environment where men can be fathers. And we think that moving to four weeks paternity leave whereas before in most markets it’s usually just two weeks or less, signals a progressive step forward.

We have operationally a few constraints around how we would extend that to six months here where the majority of the workforce is male, but aspirationally, would we like to change that in the future of course.

Image by Wayne Djokoto

Do you think this move will eventually result in a more motivated employee/worker?

Caroline: We definitely hope so. I guess it is part of a broader package that is contributing to an environment where everyone can do their best work.

And we think that everybody can do their best work when they are treated as a complete human being, when their home life is respected and when we enable people to make choices to have a fulfilled life.

Clemmie: I think that is the main point of the policy. We feel it is quite pioneering in where we are taking it around the world but equally, it is just one policy and there are many within a business that are designed to support people around our values and how we think people should be treated.

You can see that specifically in the female empowerment space. This policy has become a game changer for a lot of people who want to have families or are thinking about having another child etc.

To add to Caroline’s point – it’s got to be more than a policy, it’s got to be how people are feeling in the workplace and how they go through experiences with their line managers and their colleagues and with other opportunities.

When handling maternity/paternity breaks in your various establishments, do you include an additional labor cost or do you look at it as a way of scouting for new talent?

Caroline: Any policy has a cost, but this hasn’t been a discussion which has been driven by cost, it’s about who we want to be as an employer at a global level and some things are worth spending money on – this is something worth spending money on.

Plus we feel that the benefits outweigh any cost in terms of the retention of people, the attraction of people and really the living proof in one more manifestation of who we are as an organization and what it means to work for us, so yes it is a cost but it is worth it.

How do we handle workers not being around?

When you have those gaps, you have the opportunity to give other people more experience and more learning opportunities, so we see that as a definite opportunity and it can be managed in that way.

In Diageo, we are a company that invests very heavily and at the simplest level we believe that people learn the most and grow the most by doing different things and therefore maternity or paternity leave naturally creates an environment/opportunity for someone else.

We are also committed to the notion that when people go out on maternity leave and they leave a job, they come back to their job. We’ve not had a reaction where anybody thinks it’s insurmountable and certainly, if you look across Europe where longer maternity leaves have been mandated for many years people still manage it fine with no qualms at all.

Have you ever had an experience where the employee came back from maternity and couldn’t handle the work/mom life balance and didn’t perform as well as she used to?

Caroline: When you come back from having a baby, your life is different. From my own experience, I came back to a new job that demanded more time from me for travel and the like, so it was a massive change in my working environment and it was the hardest in my professional career.

I doubted myself and I had to work really hard to find a way to be a mum and to also do my job.

In Africa, it’s really the same kind of balance struggle, we all have to find our own way of reconciling those different life aspects.

We try as best as we can to be considerate and to give people permission to do what they need to do to cater to what is a huge transition in life.

What we don’t want is for women to feel that they have to be superhuman, which is kind of what we tell ourselves as women that we have to do to manage everything at once.

We try and sort of humanize our workplace and have people share their stories so that other people feel that everything doesn’t have to be perfect all the time.

We also encourage men to tell the same stories and to feel that they can also do those things. It is important to have an environment where people can talk about their home life, and that counts for men and women and we are certainly trying to work towards an environment of gender parity. Our intention with all of this change is not just about women but it’s for both genders to progress in both their professional and personal lives.

What do you envision for the future of parental leave in Africa?

Caroline: We really hope that it does encourage other organizations to think about that provision.

This policy is generally trying to create a discussion on how men and women work together and gender stereotypes and what does a progressive business look like… so hopefully it’ll create more of debate beyond should we be spending money on parental leave.

Caroline Hirst, HR Director, Diageo Africa

Historically, the approach that we took here in Diageo is we had benchmarked other companies and markets in Africa and Diageo’s aim was to be better than the market, but we decided to take a break from the past and said forget the market because the market wasn’t going to get us anywhere, let’s focus on what do we think is right, let’s do that and everybody else can follow.

Clemmie: The onus is really on us now because when we announced it, the focus was on making sure everybody internally really understood because this is primarily for our employees and it’s important that they feel good about it and about the fact that they work for a company that is thinking about this and about them.

Now the onus on us is to make sure that people like Jane Karuku (our MD in Kenya’s EABL); when they’re out attending major events, that they are referencing the kind of progressive stance that we as Diageo want to take.

It’s not about a policy and a cost, it’s about a culture that is making your employees happy and to want to do great work because they have the flexibility and the support that they need, so the return on investment is exponentially better.

There is a bit of work to be done in making bigger awareness of this change and this initiative around Africa, and hopefully it does get more people thinking and gets African businesses to fully understand that it’s not just a large international company that can afford this but they can as well and they can see what the benefit is from an employee engagement and activity perspective.


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