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Nov 11, 2018

Dawn Leane explains what supports organisations can put in place to assist new mothers who are coming back from 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, reintegration into the workplace following maternity leave is crucial to a woman's decision on whether or not and when to return to the workforce.  

Even the most progressive organisations can fail woman 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 opportunities 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 woman’s 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.  

Personal reorientation

Women’s choices in the intersection of career and motherhood are about much more than paid work and career progress. Studies show that motherhood leads 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.

DCU's 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 while on leave, yet by the end of the first day this figure had dropped to 40%; 72% felt determined while on leave compared to 56% by the end of the first day.

Retaining mothers in the workplace

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

Initiatives which make it easier for women to return to work includes making sure to keep them informed while they’re on leave. Offering women the opportunity to be kept abreast of news helps to overcome the disconnect that they can feel at this time.

The DCU report suggests an open dialogue approach to a woman's leave, return and 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 important 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.

Dawn Leane is Principal Consultant at LeaneLeaders.