How companies let down women returning after maternity leave

Many firms make life hard, and pay and career progression can take a permanent hit

The statistics relating to reduction in pay, finding oneself in a less skilled role and being overlooked for promotion following maternity leave do not make encouraging reading. Research from the UK-based Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2016 shows that the gender pay gap widens consistently after the birth of a first child, largely because many women opt for part-time hours and miss out on promotions and wage increments.

By the time their first child is 12, they will be earning roughly a third less than men.

The research also shows that better-qualified women lose out more. On average, women who took time out saw their pay fall 2 per cent compared with women who had stayed in full-time employment. However, this drop rises to 4 per cent for those with higher education.

The 30% Club, which campaigns for greater representation of women at board level, says two-thirds of women end up working below their potential after career breaks. A 2018 international report from PwC, Time to Talk: What Has to Change for Women at Work, shows that 42 per cent felt nervous about the impact children might have on their careers, 48 per cent said they were overlooked for career advancement because they had children and 37 per cent did not take full maternity leave because of career pressure.


Closer to home, a survey commissioned by New Ireland Assurance found that half of returnees were anxious about going back to work and just over 25 per cent had no support from employers prior to returning.

Working arrangements were an issue for 46 per cent while three-quarters of the 1,375 respondents were concerned about getting a good work-life balance when they returned to employment.

Presence is not productivity

Flexible working hours, an easing-in process that allows women to get back to full capacity over time and better pre-return communication/training are widely seen as practical steps companies can take to facilitate those returning. However, they need to be offered with no strings attached.

Some organisations appear to be family-friendly and offer flexible working hours and parental leave to both sexes. But when the chips are down, they don’t really expect people to take them. If they do, both their promotion prospects and their standing within the company can take a hit.

This has as much to do with culture as logistics. The typical nine-to-five mindset found in many companies is a legacy from the industrial revolution. Over time it has morphed into a work culture that confuses presence with productivity.

“What often gets missed by organisations is that people are not genuinely productive for eight hours a day,” says psychologist Sinéad Brady, founder of A Career to Love, which specialises in organisational development and individual career change. “People do their best work within a focused five-hour period. And in a working environment that is becoming increasingly collaborative and knowledge-based. What matters is output, not presence.”

Brady is the facilitator of the Return to Work with Confidence workshops, organised by the women's networking group Mum Talks, with the support of New Ireland Assurance. The sessions last four hours, have 10 participants and cover a range of topics, from how to develop a personal plan to ease the transition back to work to having "the conversation" with one's boss about how the work-life balance will have to change to accommodate the new arrival.

Brady believes it is a conversation managers need to have, not least because few organisations can afford to lose access to a sizeable pool of talent, and inflexible working patterns are consistently cited as one of the main reasons why women with children change jobs or quit work completely.

“The back-to-work conversation needs to be about the whole support system and that includes the workplace,” Brady says. “The work-life balance lines are already blurred for many women, and when you’ve had a baby, they become even more so because what work looks like is going to change. Women may need to rethink their version of what success means when they become a mum.”

Addressing anxiety

Organisations that have really bought into making it easier for women to return to work have introduced initiatives such as proactive communications programmes aimed at keeping women included while they’re away. This helps address the anxiety many experience about getting too far out of touch.

Others have appointed liaison officers to help women reintegrate, and another initiative is a 50 per cent workload expectation during the first month back but with full pay.

US-based Fifth Third Bank has a maternity concierge to help pregnant employees, while PwC UK offers parental coaching sessions for managers who have recently had a child and also for their managers so they understand the demands new parents face.

"After a career break or maternity leave, both men and women should feel supported throughout the process by their employer," says Oonagh Kelly, head of HR at New Ireland Assurance. "Our research shows an appetite for employees to be kept in the loop before coming back to work; the need for a simple induction meeting to cover company news and a 'buddy' system so the person is paired up with a colleague who has been through a similar experience. It is up to employers to find out what their employees' concerns are and how they can be supported more throughout the return process."