Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Women become parents just when their careers are really starting to take off. It's a disruptive life change that can derail career progression, contributing to the gender pay gap. Can maternity coaching help with women’s career momentum and closing the gap?
Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert
Motherhood often coincides with the mid-career life stage for a woman, a time when she's knowledgeable, skilled and experienced, brimming with career potential. However, research shows that women’s careers tend to stall once they become parents.1
Before children come along, there is time and energy to focus on professional life, but parenthood is a major life transition that, like other times of change, causes huge disruption. Priorities shift and as maternity leave comes to an end, factors such flexible working, finances, and the stress of balancing work and parenthood, begin to impact on women’s decisions around returning to work. The challenges of going back to work, and the prospect of juggling career and family life can make it seem like it isn’t worth persevering with a professional role. Aspirations can be crowded out by practical realities.
The maternity transition also affects feelings of identity and confidence, and a sense of guilt is common. Women understandably worry about changes that might have taken place while they were absent or that skills might no longer be up-to-date. What will colleagues think if they are the only one in the office leaving early to pick up children from the childminder? All this can contribute to some considering alternative career options or lowering their professional aspirations. Career goals can be sidelined because of a need for balance or flexibility. These factors influence whether a woman returns to work and how engaged she is when she does go back.
Flexible working is often a necessity for working mums, but it can hinder career re-engagement if she has to sacrifice work appropriate to her level of experience level, and ‘occupationally downgrade” as so many women do.2 Women can become trapped in flexible-working roles, finding it difficult to move on into jobs at a more senior level, if they need to retain flexibility.
Businesses and organisations aren’t just at risk of losing women post-pregnancy. It can happen further down the line too, when women don’t re-engage. If the role doesn’t seem to be rewarding enough, or if women don’t feel able to fully re-integrate into the organisation as a working mum, they are less likely to re-engage with their careers.
Research has shown that there is a critical period of 9-12 months following the return to work when women can begin to question their role in the workplace.3 At this time, if there isn’t sufficient ‘pull’ to a role or organisation, the ‘push’ to leave can take over, with women taking a career break or seeking a job elsewhere that will be a better fit.
"There is a critical period of 9-12 months following the return to work when women can begin to question their role in the workplace"
Line managers will help during this time by being aware that women often feel vulnerable when they are returning to work and may be grieving for time lost with their child.4 Managers who provide support and understanding will help ease the transition. An empathetic ear, and offering a back-to-work induction and mentoring, will all make a difference to maternity returners during this transitional phase. Measures like these are important, as employees are more likely to leave if the culture for working parents doesn’t appear favourable.
"Line managers will help during this time by being aware that women often feel vulnerable when they are returning to work and may be grieving for time lost with their child"
Time to Adapt
A range of factors come into play that affect women’s ability to develop their career after having children. It’s not that career progression isn’t important to mothers, in fact, scope for development tends to be an important consideration when women are deciding whether to return to an organisation.5
Often employers assume that the reasons women ‘opt out’ are to do with values, work/life balance and discrimination. The reasons for opting out are very complex. While the assumption is that women leave to care for family, research suggests that they actually leave for the same reasons as men; lack of job opportunity, job dissatisfaction and lack of organisational commitment. 6
Time away from the workplace gives a woman time to reflect and re-affirm what she brings to her role – and what it brings to her. She needs her role to be of value and feel valued to actively re-engage and feel positive about returning.2
This period of reflection can be positive and beneficial process in terms of career evaluation. A more negative consequence of maternity leave, as with other absences from the workplace, is that time away can reduce confidence, and raise concerns about being left behind, out of touch and irrelevant.
Maternity Pay Gap
Organisations increasingly appreciate that attracting women back into the organisation after maternity leave and enabling their continued career progression, has to be a priority. The need has been highlighted by gender pay gap reporting, as it’s become apparent that the maternity transition is a pivotal point when valuable talent is lost and the female talent pipeline shrinks.
"The maternity transition is a pivotal point when valuable talent is lost and the female talent pipeline shrinks"
There are a range of steps organisations typically take to re-engage their maternity returners:
Enhanced maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay
Help with childcare costs
Unconscious bias training
These are all very worthwhile initiatives that will facilitate a woman being able to return to work and help ease her back in. What organisations tell me, however (and this is backed up by gender pay gap data), is that these initiatives on their own aren’t enough. Even when frameworks like these are in place and working mums are coming back, their careers are stalling nonetheless.
And it’s not just mothers who take the brunt of the ‘motherhood penalty’. The glass ceiling negatively impacts on organisations, due to increased recruitment costs, skills gaps and losing talented staff to competitors. It widens gender pay gaps.
The argument for increasing gender diversity at senior levels is tried and tested. For every female board member, Lloyd’s found that assets increased on average by eight per cent. 7 Research by McKinsey showed that organisations are more successful when they have increased gender diversity.8 Put simply, attracting women into senior roles is vital for businesses to remain competitive. How can businesses and organisations close the maternity pay gap?
The day-to-day realities for working mums put pressure on women to think more short term about their work, and prioritise flexibility over progression, which creates a perfect storm that contributes to careers stalling post-maternity. Research indicates that career aspirations are influential in womens’ decisions around returning to work and what happens to them long term.2 While frameworks such as those described above prepare the ground for a successful transition back into the workplace, they are not sufficient to address the breadth of challenges women face during the maternity transition.
What else can organisations do? Maternity coaching is a fairly recent arrival in workplaces, designed to help women manage their transition into being a working mother. It was pioneered by the law and financial services sectors, who realised that women were dipping out mid-career in large numbers. Research undertaken in these sectors indicate a significant increase in the numbers of mothers returning and being retained in employment after participating.2
What is maternity coaching? It’s specialist, one-to-one, confidential support that gives women space for reflection and focus during a life stage when they often feel overwhelmed day-to-day. It gives working mums dedicated time to understand their priorities, strengths and aspirations. Maternity coaching enables women to plan and implement a career strategy that complements what's important to them as a parent. 9
"Specialist, one-to-one, confidential support that gives women space for reflection and focus during a life stage when they often feel overwhelmed day-to-day"
Maternity coaching typically begins with an initial session before maternity leave. Women may want to use this session, for example, to explore how much contact they want to have with work while they are away and what form any communication may take. There is then usually a second session towards the end of maternity leave to enable women to talk through their preparations for the return. The remaining 2-4 sessions take place after the return to work. These might be used to explore adapting to working motherhood, exploring challanges such as mental load and expressing needs, as well as thinking about identity, confidence, priorities and career progression.
What do women say maternity coaching gives them? 3,5,9
“A way to develop an individual perspective: where are my priorities, what do I consciously give up, what am I not willing to give up, how do I shape this.”
“A sounding board outside of work to think about issues that haven’t affected me before, off record and away from employers.”
“Someone to discuss the issues with who does not have the explicit invested interest, particularly when it came to decision-making about their career choices and moving forward.”
“Coaching enabled clarity, which in turn enabled clear goal setting.”
What are the benefits to organisations? Elevated levels of retention, engagement and productivity, as women are more likely to ‘hit the ground running.’ Communication is improved between returners and managers. Working mums are more likely to continue to progress their careers, helping increase diversity in senior roles and close the gender pay gap. Investing in maternity coaching also sends out a strong message that this is an organisation committed to investing in its female employees.
What doesn't Work
Maternity coaching has been shown to be an effective way of helping organisations to retain and develop female employees post-maternity, but it won't work if it is used as a ‘sticking plaster.’3 If the culture of the organisation is not sufficiently welcoming and supportive of working parents, then women will still become frustrated and disengage. Coaching alone cannot prevent that.10
Having measures in place that are part of the organisational culture, such as firmly rooted flexible working practices and transparent promotion processes, produce an environment in which women have an equal playing field, as does an appreciation of the transferable skills women develop during their often non-linear careers. It is frustrating for the participant and also for the coach, who will be working with women, to be constrained by inbuilt structural and cultural biases that will limit what is possible.
When researchers asked if there was anything participants would change about maternity coaching or if it could be improved, the most common response was that its use was limited when it could not actually solve the issues the women faced.
Maternity coaching will only give a return on organisational investment when the barriers to career progression that women face when they return to work after becoming a parent are removed.9 In a culture that welcomes working mums, where they are able to fully contribute, maternity coaching is an effective way to improve retention and career progression for maternity returners and close gender pay gaps.
Emma Waltham specialises in helping organisations support women returning to work after maternity, though training, coaching and consultancy. To find out more about maternity coaching, email firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Gender equality at work: research on the barriers to women's progression, Government Equalities Office (October 2019)
2 C. Filsinger, How can maternity coaching influence women’s re-engagement with their career development: a case study of a maternity coaching programme in UK-based private law firms. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue 6 (2012), pp. 46—56
3 J. Bussell, Great expectations: can maternity coaching affect the retention of professional women? International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue 2 (2008), pp. 14—26
4 J. Moffett, ‘Adjusting to the new norm’: how and why maternity coaching can help with the transition back to work after maternity leave, International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol. 13 No 2 (2018), pp. 62
5 C. Vitzhum, How can maternity-return coaching complement structural organisational benefits? International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue No. 11 (June 2017), pp. 44—56
6 L.A. Maniero and S.E. Sullivan, Kaleidoscope Careers: an alternative explanation for the ‘opt-out revolution’, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 19, Issue 1 (2005), pp.101—123
7 Lloyd’s, Holding up the mirror: Reflections on diversity and inclusion in the Lloyd’s market. Inclusion@Lloyd’s Report (2016). Available at: www.lloyds.com/~/media/files/the%20market/tools%20and%20resources/inclusion/holding%20up%20the%20mirror.pdf
8 Women Matter, McKinsey (2017). Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-matter-ten-years-of-insights-on-gender-diversity
9 S.Brown and E. Kelan, Managing Maternity: Maternity Coaching, Therapeutic Culture and Individualisation, British Academy of Management, Conference Proceedings (2013)
10 J. Liston-Smith, Becoming a parent. In: Passmore, J. and Panchal. S. (eds) Developmental Coaching. Routledge (2011) pp. 91—114