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How line managers can ensure maternity leave doesn't stall female career progression

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

While most organisations spend heavily on onboarding programs for newcomers and graduate recruits, not as many pay the same level of attention to re-integrating employees after parental leave.


Imagine that, due to a temporary absence from your workplace, your highest performing team member leaves and joins a competitor; you are now left with the unenviable job of finding her replacement whilst trying to hold together shaky team dynamics, and yet another female leader fails to make it to executive level.

A loss of career progression, a reduced sense of belonging and dip in confidence are the reality for many women reviewing their career plans after maternity leave. Her relationships with senior partners, who she had previously worked closely with, are now significantly worsened. Her colleagues, who once saw her as capable and confident, no longer hold the same beliefs. Her work life balance is non-existent and she is worried burnout will soon be knocking at the door.

Your role as a leader of people is a critical in ensuring a brilliant experience of so many talented women, and they are not left feeling frustrated and disappointed.

The cost of replacing an employee is upwards of £30,000, and with more than 75 percent of new mothers leaving their employers after childbirth, your actions matter.

Here are 9 ways your leadership style can ensure your returners have a great experience and you can retain your returners:

1. Challenge your assumptions

It is easy to think that every new parent wants the same thing. However, people's experiences differ. So instead of making sweeping assumptions, or applying broad brush strokes to the 'women in the workplace' question, it's essential to treat women as individuals with their own needs, aspirations and ambitions. Make time to get to know how they are experiencing leave, from their perspective, and adjust your leadership style accordingly.

2. View leave as a brief interlude and keep women 'in the line'

A period of leave is a short period of time in a career that could span more than 40 years. To ensure women stay in progressive roles and move towards executive

leadership, you can get creative and enable flexibility to all employees.

3. Agree ways of communication during leave and keep an open dialogue

The secret to holding on to returners is to establish a plan before they leave. Before she departs ask her to clarify her preferred method of communication. Whether that is email, phone, WhatsApp, Slack, or something else. How she is communicated with is a deeply personal choice, and getting it right before she leaves the office can make or break the experience she has as she plans her return.

4. Capture her goals and ambitions before leave

Career progression conversations often get lost when there are leadership changes. Unless documented in a consistent way, your returner may find she is coming back to work with a new boss who has no idea of the career goals she discussed with you over lunch 12 months ago. Make sure her ambitions are captured somewhere and shared with your successor.

5. Keep her informed of all developments, including promotion opportunities

Ensure you are consistently updating her on any opportunities for progression or promotion, so that she has the opportunity to apply. If successful, hold the position open for her return.

6. Be aware that this transition is personal

Every action you take at this complex time in her career can be heightened in importance - a meeting scheduled at the same time as nursery pick up, or a last minute change to the team away day dates can be deeply personal. Practice putting yourself in her shoes and displaying empathy as she finds her feet in working things out.

7. Allow her plans to grow, flex and evolve

The thinking and needs of your line report will evolve over time, so keep a regular open line of communication. Keep talking at regular touchpoints and allow plans to change, such as using a phased return to work or trial period for any changes so that you can test the waters and measure success.

8. View her leave through a leadership lens

A period of maternity leave is a time ripe in personal and professional development. Neuroscientists explain how brain efficiency increases as a result of the changes motherhood provide a woman, grey matter decreases and white matter increases - boosting skills in empathy, problem solving and understanding the motives of others. Ask your returners what skills she developed during leave, and how these now transfer back to her work. Celebrate her growth to help her build back confidence and leverage the refined skills she brings to the team.

9. Develop an output based culture

If there was ever a time to re-examine what it means to be productive, it's in the aftermath of this global pandemic. Making work sustainable goes beyond adjusting productivity targets and setting realistic goals. It also involves changing

perceptions about how work is done and when it gets done. Shift away

from presenteeism as a marker of success, and develop an output based culture.

For more ideas to help you make your team member's parental leave experience a brilliant one read these

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