Why are employers alienating working mothers when they should be celebrating them?
As the founder of That Works For Me, an online service that helps women to find flexible work, I’m acutely aware that many are forced to leave their jobs after becoming mothers. But, in the four years I’ve been running the business, I’ve never managed to find definitive research into the extent of the problem.
Last summer, I attended a meeting of the Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group. Wanting to feel fully informed for the session, I searched yet again for some hard data on the proportion of women leaving the UK workforce after having children. I still couldn’t find any.
So I did what any woman would do in my position: I conducted my own survey. That Works For Me questioned 848 women nationwide about how their careers had gone once they’d become mothers. Their responses, published in our Careers After Babies report, were deeply concerning to me – and they should also be to employers.
Although 98% of the respondents stated that they wanted to return to work after becoming mothers, 85% reported that they’d left full-time employment within three years of having children.
Most respondents said that they had struggled to make a full-time job work alongside having children. Only 24% returned from maternity leave to their pre-maternity hours, while 57% left the workforce, with many citing redundancy, mental ill-health and the impossibility of managing their work and family responsibilities as the causes.
Our study indicated that it was taking more than a decade on average for women to return to their pre-maternity salaries and status levels. The data suggested that mothers were tending to accept lower-skilled roles than they were capable of holding after maternity leave, as they saw this as their only route back into employment.
A business imperative
Our research findings are critical, not only for women but also for employers. Many businesses invest heavily in hiring, training and developing women, only to see them leave as the result of a life event that can be planned for.
Not all companies get it wrong – indeed, many women return from maternity leave to find a more empathetic employer, which they are unlikely to leave even if they have more children. These organisations have found that retaining a female employee starts before she even has her first child.
Female business leaders should talk openly about their children. These role models and mentors can play a key part in showing others that it’s possible to return from maternity leave and resume a successful career. When women in senior positions say that they’re working around school pick-up times, for instance, that can send a powerful message to others in the business.
Many fathers still feel as though they would stand out at work for taking parental leave and it is not actively encouraged by organisations. Only 7% of the couples we surveyed said they shared parental leave. Only 25% of female respondents said that they’d even spoken to their partners about the prospect.
More men will be encouraged to request shared parental leave if they see others taking paternity leave. The wider sharing of parental responsibilities would serve to shield women from all the career ramifications of motherhood.
Developing a supportive culture
Bringing a child into the world should be celebrated – as should maternity. A woman’s time on maternity leave needs to be managed closely and empathetically by her line manager with the support of an HR specialist. All conversations should be geared towards a positive return to her original role. Career progression plans should be kept on file, along with performance reports and feedback to remind everyone of their talents.
A supportive culture must also be cultivated. That covers everything from the acceptance of parental leave requests down to the terms that people use. The power of language should not be underestimated. Phrases with pejorative overtones – for instance, “baby breaks”, “leaving early” and “part-timers” – should be banned from the workplace. To encourage greater acceptance of flexible working requests, mothers-to-be should be allowed to trial working in a part-time capacity before they go on maternity leave.
Maternity cover needs to be just that: an interim role for someone temporarily covering a job. The plan for that individual should set a clear end date and ongoing career path – one that doesn’t mean the interim job-holder will leapfrog the returning employee. This provides job security for the woman on maternity leave, as she will know that her role will still be available when her time away finishes. Such reassurance makes women infinitely more confident and likely to stay with their employers.
In the UK, 82% of women will be mothers by the time they’re 40. That equates to 43% of the nation’s workforce. Whatever your gender, these findings matter. The evidence shows that mothers want to come back to work – and they deserve to return to a job that matches their capabilities and performance levels.
Jess Heagren is the founder and CEO of That Works For Me. She was a director at a large insurance firm, but her career there ended when she had the first of her four children. That Works For Me aims to keep more women in the workplace through the Careers After Babies accreditation and connecting employers with skilled mothers seeking flexible employment and freelance opportunities.