Retain your top women through maternity transition.
Research is clear that the most challenging point in a woman’s career, and the most significant barrier to career progression, is the maternity transition.
Whilst there are many factors that influence the positive re-engagement of women returning from maternity leave, the line manager is critical in their retention: from the moment a woman discloses she is pregnant till the end of her role as primary carer.*
Maternity leave generally happens at a mid-career high point, and for most women, it is the catalyst for change, personally and professionally. Sadly, it can and often does result in an unnecessary exit or career change at huge cost to company and not always in the best interests of the woman herself or her family. If we are to make any real strides in getting more high performing women into leadership and executive positions, much attention needs to be paid to this critical phase in a woman’s career development.
We are seeing many organisations and professional firms re-shaping the employee value proposition, and implementing policies, procedures and programmes to attract, retain and ‘promote’ female employees. Although these initiatives are positive, it’s important that companies do more than pay lip service to them. It’s time to examine the culture and behavioural issues that either support or undermine top women staying in the game.
Tips for line managers to support maternity returners
Women returning from maternity leave are expected to get back into gear as quickly as possible, and confront the challenges of their new delicate balancing act. Similarly, the line manager, as the key interface between the individual and the organisation, has a responsibility to support this process. The manager’s behaviour and relationship with the returning woman features prominently in research as a key contributor to her long term commitment.
While on maternity leave, women start to acknowledge the significant life change they are experiencing. Things start to look different – there’s a change in perspective, self-perception and a shift in priorities. In coaching sessions with senior women at this stage, even the highest achievers express anxieties about their return. Issues raised relate to child care, working patterns, coping ability, changes at work. This is compounded by a perceived loss of business confidence and competence.
Upon return to work, a common theme in coaching conversations is guilt. When women are at work, they feel guilty about leaving their baby at home, and when they are at home, they feel guilty about work. They are grappling with a ‘new normal’ – the integration of two demanding fulltime roles, sleep deprivation and complete selflessness.
Understand your balancing act as line manager
Maternity returners are hyper vigilant. They are observing and listening to how they are being perceived and treated, and whether the organisation is living up to its female-friendly pronouncements.
A big mistake colleagues can make is to assume that returning women only want to be back home with their babies. They draw the conclusion that they are uncommitted and not up for the challenge. This thinking could translate into ‘benevolent bias’ where they are excluded from events and projects or overlooked for promotion – which results in their feeling marginalised and under-valued.
The reality is that many women realise while on maternity leave, how important their careers are to them. We often see increased work engagement as a result of making the decision to be apart from their child. This is borne out by research. Since they see themselves as ‘investing’ in their careers, maternity returners want their managers to really appreciate that and not see them in an entirely different light.
Women regularly comment that they appreciate it when colleagues acknowledge their changed circumstances, but, being by nature hard on themselves in terms of delivery and deadlines, they do not expect or want to be molly-coddled.
Conversely, it’s a mistake to ignore the invisible bump and to act as if nothing has happened! Piling on work may be your way of showing her how much you value her ability, but consider that this may be perceived as insensitive.
So, for the manager, it can be a bit like being between a rock and hard place!
Always consult, always ask, never assume
The rule of thumb is to encourage dialogue, communicate appropriately and keep the communication channels open. I recommend a review session with her shortly after her return to evaluate workload, agree reasonable timeframes and discuss mutual expectations about travel and afterhours events.
Acknowledge the added value she brings post maternity leave
It is critical to remember that this highly skilled and committed professional woman, who left for four plus months to have a baby, is returning a better and potentially even more valuable employee than before.
Never underestimate the personal growth women experience on becoming a parent, which can be applied to deliver positive results in the workplace: a fresh perspective of people and relationships, enhanced ability to delegate, focus and prioritise. Maternity returners place high value on their time, and as such are often more productive and effective than their counterparts without children who don’t need to leave the office by a certain time due to childcare responsibilities.
Line managers, in collaboration with their maternity returners, have a huge opportunity and obligation to facilitate their re-engagement, to help the organisation realise operational and cost benefits, and the long term dividend of keeping their top talent through to board and partner level.
Melany Green is the Chief Expectations Officer of Great Expectations Maternity Coaching, www.maternitycoaching.co.za.
* Bussell, J. (2008) Great Expectations: Can Maternity Coaching affect the Retention of Professional Women?
International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue No. 2, Autumn 2008.
This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.