Many women are concerned about the impact of maternity leave on their career which they have invested heavily in. Here we outline some strategies to mitigate or minimise that impact – ideally with a top-down/bottom-up approach.

When it comes to managing their career and maternity leave, women and managers often focus primarily on the ‘finishing up’ and ‘back to work’ dates. Handover planning and figuring out the organisation’s maternity and parental leave polices are front of mind.

Our experience through specialising in supporting women and organisations to manage this key work-life transition effectively, too often women and managers don’t put enough focus on the longer-term perspective in pre- maternity leave discussions. An opportunity missed.

This is exacerbated in the current COVID environment, where remote working is now both required and normal, with the result that some women haven’t been able to be physically visible and present before finishing up.

Reviewing my experience with hundreds of women who have been through Clearbird’s Managing Your Career around Maternity Leave Group and 1:1 Programmes, I feel compelled to call out the potential triple impact of maternity leave on female careers. And I fear that this could increasingly turn into a quadruple impact as a result of continued remote working conditions post COVID-19. While the benefits of remote working, especially for mums, are many, it will require conscious leadership and conscious career navigation to not go under the radar if full remote working becomes an option.

This triple impact refers to these three periods:

  • Pre-maternity leave;
  • Maternity leave itself; and
  • The return to work from maternity leave.

If not handled with consciousness, the gender gap, the gender pay gap and career progression will continue to take a hit.

What does this mean exactly?

Let’s take Liz as an example, she is going on maternity leave six months into the financial year. We may assume that she has delivered against, and even beyond, her objectives but she does not have the conversations to capture and recognise the value that she has delivered in those six months.

Perhaps Liz didn’t get a chance (too busy) to have her goal-setting conversation in anticipation of her ‘disappearing’ for the remaining months of the year. Now she has nothing to track her performance against in terms of demonstrating the achievements and value she has brought to the organisation in the year to date.

The absence of goals recorded and measured and the missed opportunity of a performance review where she can put her stake in the ground, means that it is entirely possible that those six months of work become invisible once she finishes up for maternity leave and on her return. They are simply put, forgotten.

Now move forward, after let’s say 12 months on maternity leave, Liz returns to work with six months of the financial year left. She works really hard for those six months, both committed to her role and sensing that she has to reprove herself. But the conversation to reset her objectives for the remaining months of the year hasn’t happened either. When it comes to reward and recognition at the end of the year, these six months have the potential to also become somewhat invisible as Liz wasn’t there performing and delivering for the full year. Perception can be everything.

While Liz might have been working diligently up until her leave and after she resumed her role, the reality is that both of these six-month periods can become invisible. Add to this an absence of career conversations and career progression opportunities. So now instead of a 12-month career impact while on leave, it can turn into a 24-month impact. This impact can be financial but also affect presence, impact, visibility, reputation and career progression. Is it any wonder that so many women are concerned about the impact of having a family on their career?

Our data points show that women returning to work often have the sense that they have to reprove themselves. This is sometimes self-imposed but it is frequently affirmed by colleagues and managers – the work, profile and reputation before maternity leave can be disregarded.

And then, on return, the new mum can be met with a sense of being written off, the classics being ‘You’re not as committed and ambitious anymore’ and ‘What’s the point of giving you strategic/high visibility work when you’ll be going off on baby #2 any day now’. Add to that a knock in confidence and trying to get your head around the juggling.

But it’s not all bad news. There are a number of things that professional mums, managers and organisations can do to mitigate this impact.

How do females with families avoid this potential and detrimental triple career impact?

This is about conscious conversations, not going under that radar or allowing yourself to be put under the radar. Specifically, by creating threads from before you go on maternity leave, throughout the time off, and upon reentry to the workplace. 

Good communication is key to all of this. These are some of the key things to make sure you do

  • Set up a meeting at least one month before you go on leave.
  • Record your achievements and performance.
  • Let your manager know about your career expectations.
  • Let it be known if you would like to be considered for promotion.
  • Don’t forget to communicate with wider stakeholders who may may have an influence on your career while you are on leave.
  • Don’t write yourself off. Don’t go under the radar.

In other words, keep showing up fully.

Progress and culture change is slow, frustratingly so, and organisations vary vastly in terms of diversity maturity. Change is required at an organisational level, and a top-down approach is needed without question. But it’s important for women to take the reins on this phase of their career too.

Of course, all of these do’s and don’ts apply to managers too.

For managers needs to be on inclusive management and leadership, an outcome focus and good work as opposed to hours and face time. This is about retaining and growing female talent in the organisation. A longer term view serves everyone. The situation is improving and many managers are recognising the importance of retaining their best talent through flexibility. Thankfully, they’re having the open and honest conversations. (Read the insights for managers about inclusive leadership around maternity leave.)

The bottom line: how can you reduce the potential triple/quadruple impact of maternity leave on your career? Through conscious awareness and conscious conversations. By sewing that all-important goal-setting thread between finishing up from work and starting back.

Show up. Be present. Have the important conversations. Take the reins.

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Contact us to find out more about our Group Programmes and 1:1 Maternity Coaching Services.

Clearbird’s suite of Back to Work from Maternity Leave, New Parents and Inclusive Leadership Programmes support diversity and inclusion thinking and strategy.

We help females returning to the workplace to feel empowered, re-focused, confident and re-energised. We support new dads/parents who are also thinking about what this new phase means for them and enable this important conversation to take place. We support, guide and challenge managers in successfully managing these key life transition points – with an eye on retaining and developing female talent.

If organisationally and societally, we’re serious about Feeding the Female Leadership Pipeline and retaining and growing our female talent, supporting parents in this life transition to manage the mid-career phase is critical to every organisation’s diversity and inclusion agenda.

Our sessions are incredibly effective in bridging the communication gap, bringing a wider perspective and providing practical strategies to enable the important and honest conversations.