Updated: Jun 21, 2021
Maternity returners are facing the most challenging environment ever and organisations need to act now, with widespread evidence emerging that firms are at risk of losing their female talent and seeing burnout in women who do return
Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert
Maternity returners are facing the most challenging time ever to return to work. The maternity transition is a huge change in a woman's life that provokes a shift in priorities, a change in her sense of identity and a feeling of isolation, which often leads to a dip in professional self-confidence. Imagine now, in the era of Covid-19, how it feels to be disconnected and be coming back into this unknown environment where so much has changed.
Women have always taken on the lions’ share of childcare and domestic responsibilities. This is now being exacerbated by social distancing measures, which are expected to go on for some time. Research by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance 1 found that challenges around childcare, with reduced nursery and school provision, and less grandparental involvement, has greatly increased the burden of caring for women. Their research showed that only one-fifth of households were sharing childcare equally.
This was backed up by research by the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich, 2 which found that mothers are typically providing 50% more childcare, as well as spending 10-30% more time than fathers home schooling. It’s not surprising that a survey by King’s College London 3 found that 57% of women are feeling more anxious and depressed at present, compared to only 40% of men.
“A survey by King’s College London found that 57% of women are feeling more anxious and depressed at present, compared to only 40% of men”
I am seeing the impact in my own work with maternity returners and organisations. One returner told me how much harder it has been returning to work in the current climate, compared to going back after her first maternity leave. She has found that the isolation of remote working has really affected her confidence. Already low after taking maternity leave, she is now missing the cues (often given and received subconsciously) that she was aware of after returning following the birth of her first child. These reassured her she was doing a good job. She isn’t getting those now everyone is working at home: “I am now struggling to identify the value I bring, and I am very aware that my colleagues don’t have kids and are more available."
From the organisational perspective, an EDI professional told me how worried they are about their returners, in particular about how isolated women on leave are and how little support they receive from their managers on their return, who are busy focusing on other priorities. He raised the importance of evaluating the impact that prolonged remote working is having on this specific group.
Risks for the Employer
Returning to work right now, with uncertainties around safety, business changes and future job security, risk soaring anxiety levels, and decreases in retention and productivity rates among women returners.
“I am now struggling to identify the value I bring, and I am very aware that my colleagues don’t have kids and are more available"
There is real concern that for many women, the prospect of going back to work will just be too overwhelming and they will decide not to return. Others will be experiencing the stress of working while trying to manage an increase in caring responsibilities, which means that they will find it difficult to re-engage when they return and keep up their previous levels of productivity.
The consequences are already being felt by female scientists, who wrote an open letter to Times Higher Education supplement 4 saying that while their male colleagues were using time away from the lab to write papers and grant proposals, they just had too much on their plate. Journal editors are already reporting a decrease in submissions from female academics.
Women’s ability to participate in the workforce doesn’t just matter to them as individuals. It matters to organisations too. McKinsey & Company’s Diversity Wins – How Inclusion Matters report 5, published in May, points out that organisations who “view I&D as a ‘luxury we cannot afford’ during the crisis risk tarnishing their license to operate in the long term and could lose out on very real opportunities to innovate their business model and strengthen their business recovery’.
Organisations that fail to support their returners now put themselves at risk of losing any gains they have made in gender diversity at senior levels and increasing their gender pay gap.
“The consequences are already being felt by female scientists, who wrote an open letter to Times Higher Education saying that while their male colleagues were using time away from the lab to write papers and grant proposals, they just had too much on their plate.”
This situation is going to persist for some time. Organisations such as Google and Facebook have said their staff will be working remotely until the end of the year. Morgan Stanley recently announced that they are now confident that they can operate without an office at all. And the CEO of Barclays has said that "the notion of putting 7000 people in an office may be a thing of the past".
The prospect of more remote working could be good news for maternity returners, who have always been disadvantaged by needing ‘special’ working arrangements, in order to be able to participate in the workforce. Now it looks as if this particular playing field is levelling. However, any upside could be undermined by the increased unpaid workload and level of distraction women are carrying at home. What can organisations to retain and re-engage pregnant and returning mums at this time?
Be pragmatic – understand and communicate what’s the priority, and be flexible about when and where people work.
Be aware of bias – while we all need to empathise with the additional pressures on working mums, it’s important to provide support, not make assumptions about who is doing what. Ask yourself, “Would I assume that about a male employee who has children?”.
Invest in gender diversity – more than ever, organisations will need diverse, engaged talent to see them through whatever is coming.
Support managers – they are key to the experience returners have and so influential on whether they return and re-engage.
Onboard your returners – make sure you have a process in place to bring your returners up to speed and help them reconnect with the organisation.
Protect pregnant employees – review and follow Government guidance on the need for women who are pregnant to self-isolate.
Support returners with maternity coaching – evidence shows that women benefit from 1:1 support during this major life change and it makes a real difference to how many female staff you keep in talent pipelines after maternity.
Emma Waltham specialises in helping organisations support women returning to work after maternity, though training, coaching and consultancy. To find out more about her services, email firstname.lastname@example.org
1. C. Hupkau and B.Petrongolo, Work, care and gender during the Covid-19
crisis. London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, May 2020
2. A. Adams-Prassl, T. Boneva, M. Golin and C. Rauh, Inequality in the impact of the coronavirus shock: evidence from real time surveys. Institute for New Economic Thinking, April 2020
5. McKinsey and Company, Diversity Wins – How Inclusion Matters, May 2020