‘I left Venus and came back to Mars’
What’s the best way to handle the transition back to work after maternity leave?
Communication around returning to work after maternity leave should be open, transparent and happen as early as possible, even before the women goes on leave. Photograph: iStock
Increased interest in the treatment, representation and equality of women in the workplace has been reflected by media and industry attention to issues such as gender pay gaps and the representation of women at senior management levels. Unfortunately, despite apparent shifts in attitudes towards equality, real progress on this front has been frustratingly and unacceptably slow.
If we take a long-term view of careers, one very clear difference for women is that they are more likely to take extended periods of leave due to caregiver responsibilities.
The most common of these, maternity leave, often occurs in a woman’s early 30s and coincides with a time at which many professionals have established themselves in their careers but not yet made it to middle/senior management. As such, this period of a woman’s life is a critical juncture in the so-called “leaky pipeline” of female talent.
We know very little about how women navigate their return to work or re-engage with their careers after this pause. Research recently conducted at DCU Business School, in conjunction with Dr Yseult Freeney and Prof David Collings, explored how high-performing women, their line managers and HR professionals in Ireland, are managing this transition. The title of this article – I left Venus and came back to Mars – is a quote from a recently returned mother who participated in our research. It illustrates the disillusionment that returning women can feel while reintegrating to the workplace.
The research involved large organisations from across a variety of industry sectors and identified what organisations, managers and returners can do to help:
1. Cultural views of leave: How organisations view maternity leave was a major influence in women’s experiences of returning to work. In organisations where maternity leave was viewed as a major disruption, women tended to report more difficult experiences.
However, organisations that recognised that this period is potentially just a brief interlude in a much longer term employment relationship encouraged a much more positive restart.
2. Line manager training: A crucial factor for many returners was their relationship and communication with their manager. Communication around this topic should be open, transparent and happen as early as possible, even before the women goes on leave. This was recognised by returners and line managers alike.
But one of the barriers to effective communication seemed to be a genuine fear among managers that these conversations have the potential to cause offence or even legal issues. Where these conversations were not happening, women often reported feeling that assumptions had been made about their priorities and wishes that led to them feeling undervalued and let down by their employers. If organisations would like to ensure positive transitions back into work, they need to equip line managers to have useful, respectful, and timely conversations.
3. Role models: The path to a successful career as a parent is far easier to visualise if women can see (or, even better, speak to) other primary caregivers in senior roles. Women in our research often pointed to examples of senior managers who were proof that it was possible to be a parent and progress within their organisation.
Contact with peers who have recently experienced the transition back to work can also be useful in providing women with a safe space to discuss how others have managed.
4. Valuing output not input: A common issue for returners, line managers and HR professionals is how to manage requests for flexible or adjusted working arrangements. Flexible working practices are not always possible or attractive for organisations and there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that they come with penalties for women in terms of how their capabilities and commitment to work is viewed.
Perhaps inevitably, increased commitment outside of work means a reduction in the hours that it is possible to be physically in the office. However, in organisations where women and managers were focused on quantity and quality of output rather than input and time spent behind the desk, the return to work was far more successful. In fact in these instances, returners reported a renewed focus and enthusiasm to contribute to their organisation and reclaim this aspect of their identity.
5. Returner voice: While organisations can take a variety of steps to help ensure a successful transition, women returning from maternity leave can be proactive in preparing for their leave and their return, and in communicating their preferences and priorities. Of course, a positive relationship with one’s employer makes this speaking up a lot easier but whoever initiates the conversation, the evidence suggests that early, honest communication about preferences, expectations and responsibilities is crucial.
Dr Lisa van der Werff is an organisational psychologist from DCU Business School.