Maternity leave: Why most return-to-work schemes are broken

23 May 2017 -


Companies need to do more to support flexible working and support mothers as they come back to work

Paula Constant CCMI

There’s a universal agreement that improved gender diversity gets better results. It’s better for the economy, as well as society, driving material profit-and-loss improvements; and it creates more empathetic and relevant customer appeal and brand trust, winning more customers. Diversity is the way to go.

But gender diversity is easier talked about than achieved, particularly in big companies, where the statistics cover many skill types and hierarchy levels.

Perhaps the thorniest of all gender equality issues is the journey of the pregnant lady navigating her career on either side of her due day. The BBC One drama series The Replacement highlights, among many issues, the plight of the pregnant woman incumbent. She fears the loss of identity from leaving her work ‘baby’ and the loss of reputation that she has worked so hard to build; equally, she fears having nothing to come back to, despite the employer’s promises. We witness the challenge for the employer of trying to be supportive, while protecting the business – balancing customers and employees’ conflicting needs.

Read more: All you need to know about shared parental leave

The base requirements for pregnant women are relatively simple. First, we must understand that every woman wants a unique experience in terms of going on and returning from maternity leave. A one-size-fits-all support plan won’t work.

Second, all managers, even those who have personally been through childbirth (a minority), need proper education in the form of classroom training and coaching (not computer-based modules) to prepare, spot signs, tailor conversations and balance any conflict between the business and the employee’s requirements.

Third, at the point of departure for maternity leave, many women feel lonely, empty and anxious as they enter a brave new world. So make the send-off a spectacular celebration. Personalise a company gift box, complete with guidance and contact documentation.

Fourth, return-to-work programmes are wholly inadequate, with many women coming back to a job that isn’t properly scoped and sized to their requirements, be it “I’m back and more ready than ever to succeed” or “I need some balance to accommodate my childcare patterns” or “I want some stretch but I need to take it steady for a while to get into the swing of things”.

It’s not surprising many women leave companies within a few years of returning from maternity leave – often they are not stretched, developed, treated fairly or supported to flexibly manage childcare. What a waste of investment.

Companies need proper return-to-work schemes, buddying colleagues during maternity leave, with the option of formal keep-in-touch activity. And they need to plan all this far in advance of the employee’s return.

Supporting women in management positions is tough enough. But how do we expect female engineers, call-centre workers and retail staff to accommodate childcare requirements without shift flexibility, later start-time options, greater part-time working options, and further substitution of childcare cover?

The business case for flexible working so often falls flat on its face but, if we believe that gender diversity provides greater returns, then something we’re doing with the maths isn’t adding up.

Read more: Why now’s the time to deliver on flexible working

To conclude: there are no ground-breaking new initiatives here, but companies are simply not executing them in full or fast enough. So, please, let’s put down our pens, spur people from top to bottom in our companies into action, and free up the gender equality reading time of many.

And perhaps, when we’ve materially reduced the gender gap and improved the experience of women in companies, we could tackle the unspoken truth of non-existent or poor take-up of paternity leave, which, if executed properly, should be such an important lever in both helping women to succeed in work and creating conditions for supported father childcare obligations on a daily basis.

Paula Constant CCMI is vice-president of service delivery at BT Global Services, and the global Gender Equality Network chair for BT Group

Powered by Professional Manager