Liz Nottingham: How can we tackle issues that prevent mothers from returning to work following maternity leave?

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Outside of government policy, businesses should be taking it upon themselves to offer flexible working hours.

Balancing work and childcare is an age old conundrum and one that, in my opinion, has not yet been completely solved. Through my own experience as a working mum, I believe that balancing the household books is only ever one part of the picture.

When looking at government policy, it is great to see that George Osborne has a solid commitment to childcare places and has recently provided parents with the option to take shared leave, which gives them the chance to split 52 weeks between them. Another element which will mostly certainly be welcomed is that from September 2017, working families with three and four year olds will receive 30 hours of free childcare – an increase from the 15 hours they’re currently offered. However, whilst these regulations certainly help remove the practical and economic barriers that prevent mums return to the workplace, there are other, perhaps more serious, issues at stake.

The first issue is that talented, skilled, smart women may have lost themselves in the fish fingers and the school pick-ups over the years. Having elected to suspend their careers and professions to raise their children, the world of work continues apace. And whilst being a mum is probably the most important job, some of these women may have lost their self-esteem and confidence along the way. Many lose the fundamental belief that the world of work actually wants them to return. So in some ways, they get in the way of themselves and become unable to gain the confidence needed to come back to the workplace. Instead of viewing their skills as being the equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer as they budget, plan, organise, coach, develop, nurture and learn the new skills of parenting, they feel that the world of paid employment no longer has a need for them.

Another obstacle I have often found in my own experience, is the different points of view to flexible working in the workplace. Having worked four days a week for 18 years since the birth of my second son, I can still hear the deep sigh whenever I have said to a headhunter that I work a reduced week and have no interest in working five days. Through the eyes of a recruiter, working mums can often be seen as the awkward ones, the tricky head to place and ultimately who wants to invest in the hard placement when there are easier candidates to put forward who perfectly fit the full time brief?

Outside of government policy, businesses should be taking it upon themselves to offer flexible working hours. We know that this makes sense. Many businesses including Starcom Mediavest Group have many working mums with flexible working weeks and we’ve certainly never turned down this type of request following maternity leave. I’d strongly encourage more employers to join the party and help such women and parents return to the workplace. Research released today suggests one in five working mums have been forced to leave their roles because a request for flexible working was turned down.

Similarly we all know that searching for the right role can be a lengthy and at times exhausting process which makes it a vital area mums returning to business need support with. Organisations need to start thinking of the application process along with all of the personal concerns. We are already on the case to support women looking to return to work with our back2businessship programme. The initiative, which begins later this month in partnership with f1 Recruitment and PR agency Golin, provides women with the skills and the confidence they need to go back to work through a series of workshops. The level of skill, experience, achievements and talent of the shortlisted pool is unsurprisingly impressive. They come from a range of backgrounds, businesses and have held some meaty positions. If they did not have that baby gap on their CV they would be picked up in flash. So the programme helps them with their personal positioning and branding as they prepare to make the transition.

We also know that there is an emotional headspace transition required to prepare them for their return. The Back2Businessship programme specifically addresses this with some of the workshops and also has a killer ingredient; the placement. The programme is the start, the placement is the real opportunity for both the employer and the mum to check each other out and see how it plays out. Will the family accept this level of change, will the commute work, does the role suit them, how comfortable are they back at work? All I know is that the experience can be life changing as one partner told us that he “had his wife back.” Pretty fundamental stuff.

What we can take away from this is that mums should be seen as an addition to the work place rather than a limitation. A maternal skill set, which includes the heightened ability to nurture, combined with industrial expertise is something that should be sought after not rejected. We need to operate with an open mind, be more flexible to the demands of modern family life and be bold enough to try something different. We may just surprise ourselves.

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About Liz Nottingham

Liz is the Regional HR Director for Western Europe, for Starcom Mediavest group, one of the largest global media agencies which is part of the Publicis Groupe. She currently chairs the Future of Talent Strategy Group for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and was awarded a Fellowship of the IPA for her contribution to the advertising industry. She also led the Future of Work research report for the IPA.

Liz led Starcom Mediavest Group into the Sunday Times Top 100 and Best Companies rankings for three years and achieved the much coveted Mumsnet Gold status in 2012. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and has won a number of HR related awards over the years.

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