Maternity Returners Specialist Dr Emma Waltham launched her Maternity Returners Survey in autumn 2021 to give women going through this life changing transition a voice. Here, Emma shares an overview of the results of her research– and how companies are taking action.

Women are facing real and significant barriers to continuing their career pathways when they become parents. In November 2021 the Office for National Statistics published research showing that the gender pay gap quadruples for women in their 40s, due to parenthood.

McKinsey & Company report that women are hugely under-represented in senior roles, with Women in the Workplace 2021 finding that while nearly 50 percent of roles are filled by women at entry level, only 5 percent of C-suite jobs are held by females.

Our Maternity Returners Survey saw over 80 women coming forward to share their experiences in the workplace. Our respondents are highly qualified women, with over half having a postgraduate degree. They are predominantly aged 30-39 and a fifth are in management roles.

The results highlighted three areas where organisations need to do more to create an inclusive environment for expectant and returning mums:

 

The employee journey

A third of women said they had a negative experience at work both in pregnancy and when they returned after leave. Women reported an inconsistency of approach from both HR and managers.

Women report having to proactively seek guidance and clarification, with one respondent commenting: “The lady who is in charge of maternity leave was new and didn’t know the policy very well. I am also a first-time mum, so it was a learning curve for the both of us. In a time of uncertainty I just wanted to have someone confident in what they are doing.”

Some women expressed what they felt had gone well when they were on leave: “I was very grateful that my company respected my wishes for ‘radio silence’ unless I reached out during maternity leave so that I could spend the nine months focusing on and embracing being a mother.”

 

Line managers: the importance of empathy and compassion

Women report a lack of appropriate, confident, compassionate interactions with their line managers in the run-up to their maternity leave, with one mum commenting: “I was made to feel like I was leaving work undone when going away and made to feel very stressed and guilty.”

The most challenging time was during maternity leave, with only 37 percent of women saying they were happy with the level of interaction they had with their employer while on maternity leave.

Feelings of exclusion and lack of involvement are also expressed. One mum commented, “I’m not involved in the return to the office as I am pregnant and the company is making those in the office not feel not part of company.”

A lack of appropriate return-to-work support was also reported, with half of women said that they struggled with mental load on their return to work and half also said they felt thrown in at the deep end.

Improvements also need to be made regarding the good use of KIT days, with one mum noting that, “It was actually good to stay in touch, but because it was never discussed ahead of time, I would suddenly get emails needing immediate response and then afterward a month of silence.”

 

Progression ceiling

We asked women if the maternity transition was impacting on their careers. Responses included:

  • “I was unable to return to the first line manager role on a part-time basis, so moved to a lower grade role on a lower salary.”
  • “I had to give up my shorter week to get a promotion then I had to give up that role to go back to a shorter week to accommodate childcare.”
  • “I do admittedly feel like my career has gone backwards and that I won’t have the opportunity to apply into a more senior role again until I return from maternity leave.”

When women must step down during parenthood, this means organisations lose experienced employees from their talent pipeline, which ultimately prevents increasing gender diversity at senior levels.

 

How employers are taking action

There is a genuine risk that working mums will become disengaged, miss out on promotion and development, and without the right support in place will ultimately decide to leave their organisations and wider professions. Proactive organisations recognise this and are taking steps to tackle this issue by investing in vital initiatives such as:

  • 1:1 maternity coaching programmes.
  • Coaching for managers to upskill them in empathy and competence.
  • Webinars and events to create awareness among employees of the impact of maternity on careers and foster a sense of allyship.
  • Consultancy to understand the current experience for maternity returners and establish what is working well and what can be improved.
  • Engaging, online training resources to create a best-practice experience for maternity returners.

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Dr Emma Waltham specialises in supporting organisations to help them re-engage their parental returners, through coaching, training and return-to-work consultancy. Organisations Emma is working with include BAM Nuttall, EMCOR UK, General Dental Council, Frazer Nash Consultancy, GE Healthcare, Petrofac, Wellcome Sanger Institute and UK Power Networks.

Emma’s experience in successfully climbing the corporate ladder and being a working mum, gives her a 360-degree perspective on both the needs of returners and the organisations they work for.