Mon 06 Mar 2023

How can employers better support working mums to return to the workplace?

Speaking from experience, returning to work after having time off to have children is daunting.  We all talk about the "juggle" but until you live it, you don't really understand quite how difficult it is.  And despite the fact we are now well into the 21st century, it is a juggle that still largely falls in the lap of mothers.  This is to a large extent a cultural problem that exists in the UK and indeed in much of the world, but it is one that employers can help to change.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Jessica Heagren for a recent podcast - Careers After Babies - How can employers better support working mums return to the workplace? - who set up the "That Works for Me" platform.  The platform brings together skilled and talented women who can't work rigid full-time hours after having children with businesses that don’t necessarily need a full-time resource.  Jessica was frustrated by a lack of data showing how many women worked full-time versus part-time and how that changed when they had children.  She created a survey looking for this information and in doing so collated a vast amount of data about what happens to women's careers after children.  She then used that to produce a report - Careers After Babies - which demonstrated the significant impact having children has on women's careers.

What did the data show?

The headline finding flowing from the report is that 98% of the women who responded to the survey wanted to return to full-time work after maternity leave.  This is contrary to the narrative we have commonly been fed that women simply don't want to return.  Of those that did return, 24% tried to go back full-time, but over half of them end up leaving due to redundancy or mental health problems.  The report also found 85% of women leave full-time work within 3 years of having kids.  For women who have tried to return to work, none of this will come as a surprise - I found myself nodding as I read it.

What can employers do to help?

Employers can start by being proactive in their discussions with their employees about what they can do to support a return to work.  At the moment the onus is on the returner to make a flexible working request to say what hours they want, but that discussion works so much better when it is done in partnership with the employer.  "What can we do to help?" is an easier question to respond to than "What do you want?".  It can be difficult for a woman who has been out of the workplace for a prolonged period to know what is going to work best for them.

Being flexible not only in the hours that women work but where they work and their working pattern also helps.  Minor adjustments can  make a huge difference here.  If there is a rule about how many days employees attend the office can that be waived while children are small?  Often nursery drop offs and pick-ups make it really impractical to fulfil rigid requirements about the time you need to be office-based.  Working parents are well aware there is a shortage of available and affordable childcare; this can result in using a nursery that is a lot further away from home with the additional logistical challenges that brings.

Approaching the challenges women face on their return to work with empathy is also important.  The women who want to return to work are enthusiastic to do so to have that "adulting" time but also have huge unavoidable demands on their time outside of the workplace.  If some mornings they run into difficulty because they unexpectedly have to deal with an ill child who can't attend nursery it is very likely that their inability to get to the office will be creating more stress for them than anything else.  It is that type of stress that can lead to them feeling they have no option but to give up work (if they can afford to do so).

Finally, employers need to recognise that if we divide the parental load more equally between male and female employees then we are ultimately helping working women.  That means approaching flexible working as the norm for all working parents, not just women.  When I have spoken to dads many of them want to work flexibly but they feel like they can't apply.  They may not have any male colleagues or friends who are doing so. We need to make sure policies are in place that encourage flexible working applications from all, not just women, when employees become parents.

Statistics suggest that 86% of women will be mothers by the age of 40.  That is 43% of the workforce (with a significant amount of the rest of the workforce being populated by dads).  It is very short sighted not to plan effectively for younger members of staff to have families.  Ensure that all those people you are investing in from a talent and training perspective are brought through the organisation and retained, benefiting the organisation in the long run.

Jessica was keen to point out that we know that flexible working is better for stress levels, for well-being and, if you look at the outcomes of the current 4 day working week trials that are ongoing, productivity is not falling.  At the same time employee engagement and happiness is much higher.

What about career progression?

On career progression, the main findings from the report showed a 32% drop off at management level and a 44% increase in administrative level.  This suggests organisations are losing mid-management women when they go on maternity leave and they are re-entering the workforce at an administrative level.  The report also found it is taking 10 years or more for women's careers to recover in terms of the earnings and seniority level that they reach.  Employers need to invest in women's careers and making them feel part of the team with a career path ahead of them.  Many of us will have colleagues and friends who delayed having children because they wanted their careers to advance as far as possible before doing so.  Those women do not suddenly lose aspirations or lack ambition after childbirth.

A significant amount of progress is needed here so employers do need to consider a whole suite of measures.  A key element is that employers should not make assumptions about part-time work equating to partly committed or partly passionate about what you do.  Measures that assess performance or contribution to the workplace need to be looked at and not judged against what a full-time employee achieves.  Targets, in particular those that may cause parents more difficulty such as "out of hours" business development, or that tend not to be pro-rated, need to be considered appropriately to ensure working parents are fairly assessed on the value they bring to the business in the hours they work.

Employers can also review policies - including maternity leave, parental leave, flexible working etc - to assess how they are encouraging proactive discussions about how they can be supported to fulfil their duties in a more flexible way.  Give thought to giving paid carers leave if possible (this would help more than just parents).  Consider assigning a "buddy" who may be able to assist a working parent if they are unexpectedly out of the office due to a sick child.

It is essential that men support these initiatives, not just women, if real change is to be made here.  This is about everybody.  The culture in the UK is still that women carry the burden of childcare and child-related admin.  There is still a very low take up of shared parental leave and the data shows that only 25% of parents are even discussing it as a possibility.  Workplaces can influence that by treating dads as parents who ought to be offered flexibility too.

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