Navigating Maternity Leave

Navigating maternity leave is a tricky proposition for all concerned. It is the critical period in which women are most likely to reduce their working hours or leave the workforce entirely - leading to negative long-term consequences for gender pay and equality. According to research conducted by DCU and HR Search*, how women are reintegrated into the workplace following maternity leave is crucial to their decision on whether and when to return to the workforce.  

Even the most progressive organisations can fail women at this time with an ambivalent attitude. For example, while most organisations offer mothers flexibility in their working hours, all too often it is at the expense of fewer opportunities at work or feeling that their opinion was less valued.

What employers fail to recognise is that the experience of motherhood is a significant stage in the course of a womans development. Research shows that motherhood encourages a woman to clarify her values and authenticity. For most professional women it is the first time that they have the space to reflect on their purpose, values and what they want from their career.  

Womens choices in the intersection of career and motherhood are about much more than paid work and career progress. Studies show that motherhood lead to substantial personal reorientation and behavioural reorganisation in their work and lives in general. With this new perspective women conduct their own due diligence when it comes to returning to work and are often unwilling to make compromises or stay in roles which don’t deliver significant personal and professional satisfaction.

When coupled with a work environment that fails to offer them the same career opportunities as before and an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture, women often find that the return is not worth the investment.

DCUs research found that how women felt about their roles before they returned to work and after their first day back was significant. For example, of those surveyed 67% felt enthusiastic about returning when on leave, yet by the end of the first day this figure had dropped to 40%; 72% felt determined when on leave compared to 56% by the end of the first day.

In order to retain mothers in the workplace, it is vital that organisations consider carefully how they support their reintegration after maternity leave and the DCU research suggests that such a critical period warrants the same level of investment as onboarding programmes for new employees.

Initiatives which make it easier for women to return to work include keeping them informed while they’re away. ‘Keep in touch days’ are commonplace in Northern Ireland; offering women the opportunity to be kept abreast of news helps to overcome the disconnect that they can feel at this time. Some organisations have coaching and mentoring programmes specifically for women at this juncture in their career.

The DCU report suggests an open dialogue approach to leave, approaching return and during settling in period. Yet most employers avoid any discussion beyond statutory leave entitlements.

Not making assumptions about career/family priorities is paramount. While it might seem counter-intuitive, in my experience of coaching women during this phase, most favour the opportunity to be part of a new project or some form of job enrichment on their return.

Most importantly of all, the report notes that returning to work post-maternity leave significantly impacted on a returnee’s views of her organisation and significantly shaped her future career aspirations.