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How Line Managers Can Support Women after Maternity Leave

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

Your leadership team might value its talented female staff, and want to do everything they can to keep and develop women returning after maternity leave, but if employees get a different vibe from their line manager, they are likely to walk. If this is happening in your organisation, what can you do to turn the tide?

Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert

Organisations are waking up to the fact that when women leave the organisation when they become mothers, it's bad for business. When women don’t return after maternity leave, or leave once they've qualified for their return-to-work bonus, invaluable talent is lost (often to a competitor) and has to be replaced at considerable expense.

When surveyed by Robert Walters in 2015, 74% per cent of women said they wanted to return to their employer after maternity leave, but only 24% actually do so. If that isn’t bad enough for organisations’ female talent pipeline, PwC reported in 2016 that three-fifths of women returners take up lower-skilled roles, to work flexibly. This means organisations often have female employees that aren’t working at their full potential, impacting on productivity and competitive advantage.

"74% per cent of women said they wanted to return to their employer after maternity leave, but only 24% actually do so"

More and more organisations get this. They understand that retaining and developing experienced women is key to the future success of their business. Research by organisations such as McKinsey has provided robust evidence that having a more diverse workforce brings commercial advantage, and every senior leader knows that finding and keeping talent must be a key objective for any business. So what might be going wrong?

Holding the Line

In my work as a return-to-work trainer and coach, my conversations with organisations and women returners often come back to the same elephant in the room: the inconsistent support of line managers. While some organisations feel that their line managers want to help women make a smooth return to work and continue to progress, for some this just isn’t a priority. Others want to help, but don’t feel they know how.

For organisations to keep and develop their female talent, line managers need to be bought-in to the value of a strong female pipeline, and to have sufficient knowledge and training. Without that, no matter how much of a priority this is for the leadership team, women will continue to leave the organisation, or stay and find their career progression comes to a halt – or even worse, goes backwards. When Timewise surveyed working mothers 2015, the majority said that they had ‘fallen behind in their careers and would like to get back on track’.

How can organisations ensure that their line managers are bought-in and able to support women returning to work after maternity? Here are five ways organisations can help line managers in this area.

1. A Toolkit

Do your line managers understand why it’s so important to the business to retain its experienced female staff? It’s vital that they do, as they are on the ‘front line’, dealing with staff coming and going, people wanting to work part time, and having to cope with resentment from other staff, if women seem to get special treatment when they become parents.

The first step is to make sure that line managers know the business case and understand the benefits of retaining women returners. That having a diverse team makes the business more likely to thrive, which will benefit everyone.

Line managers also need to be given the tools they need, so they can confidently communicate the organisation’s policies and processes when women are in the run up to maternity leave. This should cover maternity pay and return-to-work bonuses, information on KIT days and a jointly agreed plan for when the line manager will contact the person on leave, to tell them about business updates, new hires, or invite them to social events, for example.

Provide training and a designated HR contact so that the line managers are confident in what they are saying to employees. If the business doesn’t do this effectively, the message women get when they take maternity leave will be, at best, inconsistent, at worse, incomplete or wrong.

“Line managers need to be given the tools they need, so they can confidently communicate the organisation’s policies and processes when women are taking maternity leave”

2. No Assumptions

When women are coming back from maternity, a trap many line managers fall into is to assume that they know what women returners want. Often this is along the lines of working part time and stepping back so they can focus on family instead of career. There is a common assumption in the workplace that working mothers don’t have the same levels of commitment or ambitious as others. This bias against women can have a massive impact on their career progression, and it is important to give line managers the training they need to prevent unconscious bias affect how they manage.

Line managers should be encouraged to treat women as individuals and talk to them about their needs and aspirations. They might also benefit from training that raises their awareness of the effect of the maternity transition on women’s confidence, engagement and priorities, so that they have stronger empathy and are more likely to be able to suggest options for what might help.

3. Talk Flex

Existing cultural norms mean that women still take on the majority of caring responsibilities, including childcare, and so they often can only return to work if the organisation is able to provide flexibility. Educate your line managers so they understand why women need this flexibility and how to manage these conversations in a way that makes the employee feel valued and supported, while still meeting the needs of the business. A company policy on flexible working will guide line managers on what the leadership team’s views are on flexibility and why, and feel more confident in these conversations.

It's important not to make working mums feel that they have been given flexibility because they are a 'special case'. This can introduce feelings of guilt or worries about having to prove that 'they are worthy'. Women in this situation may end up working much longer hours than they are contracted for and this is often unsustainable. Most employees value flexible working and teams work best when everyone is given this option, rather than just working mums. Encourage your line managers to make flexibility available to their team as a whole, rather than just to women returners.

4. The First 90 Days

Returning to the workplace after work is a huge change for anyone and this is even more the case when a woman is leaving her child for the first time. The comeback will be much smoother if women are given the support they need. It's good practice for line managers to arrange a return-to-work induction, to bring returners up to speed on any business, technical or regulatory changes that have taken place while they were away. Line managers can also set up a mentoring relationship with a woman who has returned to work successfully. This is a great way of helping women adjust to being a working mum.

5. Career Development

Many women find their career stalls when they have children, because they are forced to occupationally downgrade to be able to work flexibly, or because of assumptions in the workplace around the aspirations and capabilities of working mothers.

To ensure that your organisation keeps its high-potential women in the talent pipeline after maternity, it’s vital that your line managers are aware of how unconscious bias can affect how they treat working mums. Women returners must have the same opportunities to continue their training and to gain promotion, for the senior leadership teams to become more diverse. Encourage your line managers to sponsor their talented women, giving women returners the chance to raise their profile with clients, at company events and at board level.

Give your line managers enough support so that they are able to help women returners stay in your organisation and continue to progress their careers. Offering line managers training and toolkits will give them the knowledge and confidence they need to be able to provide a consistent approach across the board. The impact of this will be improved engagement and productivity, a stronger female talent pipeline, and happier women returners and line managers.

Emma Waltham specialises in helping organisations support women returning to work after maternity, though training, coaching and consultancy. To find out more about her training and coaching solutions for line managers, please email

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