Bridging the gaps created by maternity leave

Some businesses are helping new mothers to stay in touch with work

Motherhood marks a turning point for many working women, with inadequate support during maternity leave being blamed by some for creating barriers to mothers returning to work.

A study by leadership consultancy First100 confirmed that women find returning to work after giving birth is not easy. They can feel “out of the loop” and lack confidence after being away for a length of time. First100 says the first 100 days back at work can be critical.

Organisations that provide a structured framework and flexible attitude to work-life balance should benefit from higher retention rates among females returning to work. But many women who choose to return in part-time roles are forced to take demotions due to a lack of positions in their area, leaving them dissatisfied and unchallenged.

For Jane Kirk, director at search firm Armstrong Craven, the focus should be on ability, not the hours they work: “It isn’t talked about, but real leadership roles are closed to you if you don’t continue to work full-time. The reality after a career break is that you have to take a sideways move or demotion if you want to work part-time.”

She believes returning women need to prove to employers they are experienced enough to manage their workload without being there full-time.

Liz Bramley, head of employee engagement and diversity at the Co-Operative Group, says it has seen a marked increase in retention rates since implementing family-friendly policies and flexible working, with 97 per cent of female managers returning.

She explains it is also the ability to have open and honest conversations with managers about career aspirations that enables them to provide the right kind of support and career planning.

“If a returner is as ambitious as ever, we have a mainstream mentoring scheme, and succession planning to develop a talent pipeline up to senior management level. We’re also launching ‘Aspire’, where women will be able to do ‘skill swaps’ and coach themselves in their career progression.”

Meanwhile, for those wishing to take a step back, the Co-Op offers flexible working practices – 70 per cent of its part-time employees are female – and is in the process of carrying out pilot schemes around “hot-desking”, in preparation for a move that will affect all employees at its Manchester headquarters.

But despite such positive moves, Chris Parke, chief executive of Talking Talent, a coaching and consulting company, believes the lack of contact throughout maternity leave itself can create problems, leaving some concerned and uncertain about their choices and motivations to return to work.

The key to addressing the problem, he says, is equipping line managers with the skills and emotional intelligence to understand how to continue engaging with an employee before and throughout their maternity leave.

Too often, he says, line managers are unsure how they should react when a member of their team becomes pregnant, and become so focused on the implications for the team that they fail to deal with the situation effectively.

“I’ve had people say to me ‘I had a really good relationship with my manager. But now I’m pregnant, they won’t talk to me.’ Often managers are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and decide it’s better to say nothing at all, which creates anxiety for the employee at being treated differently. They’re only pregnant,” he says.

Mr Parke recommends educating line managers around employment law and unconscious bias. It is also important that they understand the rationales behind schemes such as flexible working – outlining their importance in retention and addressing any preconceptions around productivity are vital to get them “on-board”.

By addressing all these issues, a line manager can ensure an effective hand-over as well as an open conversation about how often the team member would like to be contacted throughout their leave. This is a very personal choice, Mr Parke explains, but is important in keeping an employee engaged and then ready to return.

Recognising these issues, Deloitte began a pilot coaching programme in 2009, focusing on two of its business divisions. The programme focused on training line managers, encouraging open conversation around women’s career aspirations and lifestyle choices, as well as keeping in touch with employees on maternity leave as frequently as they wanted.

In 2010 the business saw retention increase among returning women from 82 to 93 per cent, and the Transitions programme has now been rolled out across the company.

Val Stevenson, human resources director at Deloitte, believes it is important to recognise women’s position in the family unit, as well as the business: “More women are becoming the main breadwinner in the family, so they often have no choice about returning,” she says. “So it’s then about seeing from the woman’s side and the business side how things can work together.”

Anyone embarking on maternity leave up to partner level takes part in the programme, and it has been so successful it has also been extended to men in the company via webinars.

Changing attitudes and support for working mothers should not be taken for granted, however. In Germany, the derogatory term “raven woman” is still used for any mother returning to work. And in the UK, childcare continues to be the most expensive in Europe, so women cannot always afford to return to work without other support mechanisms being available.

While the UK government has recently tried to help reduce these costs, Mr Parke says the country is a long way behind Scandinavia, where parents receive full state support and heavy subsidies.

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