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Why supporting returning mums must be a key strategic business aim

With the Great Resignation making it ever harder to attract and keep staff, organisations must prioritise keeping and developing their returning mums - or they risk widening gender pay gaps and decreasing female representation at the most senior levels

Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert

The expected post-furlough rise in unemployment did not materialise - instead companies are finding open posts a challenge to fill. It’s a perfect storm of skills gaps, fewer EU workers, as well as employees re-evaluating what they want from their working life, leading to talk of the ‘Great Resignation’. Salary isn’t always they key consideration. People have reassessed their lives during the pandemic and want more from work, whatever that means to them.

Women bear the brunt

If organisations fail to attract and keep talent the cost will be high. We need good people in our businesses at the best of times, and now more than ever. The future is uncertain with change a constant, and without talented employees there is an all too real risk of losing ground.

It’s particularly difficult for many sectors, including STEM, to recruit experienced women. Working through the pandemic has been stressful for women with children, with mums disproportionately taking on the extra responsibility childcare and home schooling. As the arrival of the Omicron variant shows the pandemic is far from over, any school or nursery closures in 2022 will impact once again on women who are already reporting higher rates of burnout.

McKinsey & Company report that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting to be able to more easily cope. If women leave a company in their 30s, or occupationally downgrade to be able to manage their parenting responsibilities more easily, it widens gender pay gaps and creates a lack of women at senior levels. It prevents male-dominated sectors shifting to gender parity.

Empathy matters

The long-term retention and development of returning mums is a particular issue. Maternity leave management is typically process oriented. The emotional journey is rarely supported.

A recent study by Catalyst found that employees’ feelings of belonging and ability to juggle life responsibilities were directly affected by how empathetic their managers are: only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership reported their workplace as inclusive. And 86% reported that they felt able to navigate the demands of their work and life when their manager had empathy—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. This is compared with 60% of those who perceived less empathy.

The 2021 STEM Returners Index reported that 29% of returners found the transition difficult or very difficult. Juggling long work hours with finding appropriate childcare while managing their lack of confidence are the main reasons. Alarmingly, returners also experienced feelings of resentment, judgement and hostility from their colleagues, particularly male colleagues.

The pandemic has heightened the disconnect. Maternity returners who I have coached this year have told me how they find it particularly challenging, when they can’t seem to successfully reconnect after being on leave, furloughed or working remotely for extended periods of time. This lack of connection has massive implications on confidence, productivity and wellbeing - and in my experience, managers often aren’t proactive in addressing these issues.

What’s your strategy?

If your organisation wants to keep a strong, organic female talent pipeline, then it quickly needs to put a strategy in place to retain returning mums long term and ensure they can continue their career development. It needs to be an attractive prospect for working mums looking for work.

Supporting returning mums is the right thing to do, but if you need a business case, that’s easy. How can your organisation meet its recruitment goals and aspirations for increased numbers of women in leadership positions if your organic female talent pipeline is fractured and in need of emergency repair? How will it impact if the experienced women you’d love to hire take one look at your workforce and don’t believe it to be family friendly?

Silent voices

In my experience, when organisations ask women about their experience they are usually shocked and horrified by what they say. Women often don’t speak up unless they feel safe to do so. They are right to be cautious as pregnancy and birth puts women significantly at risk of experiencing discrimination in the work place.

Often the challenges around having children are so normalised, women don’t even expect it to change. They don’t feel able to ask for help. They feel vulnerable during pregnancy – it's hard to get another job with a bump – and when they come back to work that they are afraid of looking like they aren’t coping. It’s only when they are asked specifically by someone they trust that they open up.

Or they up sticks and leave and go to a more family friendly employer.

In a recent conversation with one of my maternity returner clients, she said that she was considering leaving to work at competitor as it’s just taking too much energy to stay where she is. She knows through her network that the other company has a much more family friendly culture.

One HR manager told me a few days ago that they were alarmed to realise through holding exit interviews that women were leaving before even getting pregnant, because they didn’t feel the company would be a good fit once they became parents.

A director from a research institute reached out to me for advice and support this week because a leader who has recently returned from maternity leave talked in a meeting about how the organisation needs to be so much better at supporting returning mums. It’s taken someone with lived experience in a leadership role to shine a light on how difficult this transition is.

Many other organisations are burying their head in the sand and thinking ignoring the way expectant and returning mums feel in their workplace is a can they can kick down the road.

Time for change

The clients I work with have decided to take action.

They want to move at pace, creating a cultural shift so that women will want to return after they have a baby. Where managers understand the challenges returning mums face and know how to help them. Where working mums can see leaders like them.

Do you need help to identify and remove the barriers faced by working mums in your workplace?

We can help you at whatever stage you are. An example: one of my clients is an electricity network company. They want to rapidly create a leading-edge environment where women feel supported and valued when they become mums. Where people outside the organisation will see it’s a great place to work if you have a family. They want to be out in front in their sector.

Within three months we will:

  • Diagnose what needs to improve and put a plan in place.

  • Implement a tailored toolkit which will guide returners, HR and managers successfully through the transition.

  • Train their internal coaches so they are ready to confidently and effectively provide 1:1 support to returning mums.

  • This will transform the experience of women coming back to work after having a baby.

If this sounds like where you’d like your organisation to be by Easter, then please get in touch. Email and book a consultation call for January.

This article was previously published on LinkedIn -

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