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Jessica Heagren

That Works For Me


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Nine ways to stop working mums from walking out the door

A recent report busts the myth that women don’t want to go back to work after having children. But business barriers are getting in their way.

Do you know any woman that has had a child and then successfully returned to their previous job? In a shocking new publication from That Works For Me, the Careers After Babies report found that 98% of women want to go back to work after having children but 85% end up leaving the full time workforce within three years due to lack of flexibility and burnout. 

Businesses are letting their investments (people) silently walk out the door – and it’s costing them millions. 

The most saddening finding was the number of businesses that weren’t open and honest about women’s legal rights.

What can businesses do to stop this from happening?

1. Stop seeing women as being difficult

Over a ten year period, it is likely that a business will spend hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, on building experience, talent development and training. We know that 82% of women will become mothers by the age of 45 (ONS) in the UK. That’s  41% of the workforce that businesses are choosing to ignore and not plan for. 

What do they need to do? Instead of seeing women as ‘difficult’, start seeing them for what they are. An investment that will return – just over a slightly longer period. Failure to do so won’t be easily forgiven in today’s age as employees are voting with their feet. 

2. Start by being honest about pregnant women’s rights

The most saddening finding was the number of businesses that weren’t open and honest about women’s legal rights to maternity and to their return to work. 

These basic rights must be understood by both parties. This opens communications between both parties from day one and enables you to plan more effectively. 

3. Strengthen line management

In most cases of negative experiences throughout the report, the experience was entirely determined by interactions with their line manager.

Pregnancy is a time like no other and the return to work can be the most anxiety-inducing life experience for a new mother. Inexperienced line managers need to be supported and educated making sure they behave empathetically and grasp the issues women face. 

Only 2% of women choose to be stay-at-home mothers. 

4. Protect women’s roles

Five per cent of respondents were made redundant during maternity leave and many more in the months after they returned. Where businesses brought women back into ‘similar’ roles (the government requirement for more than six months maternity leave), 79% left within two years. 

It’s not working as a retention tool. 

Bringing women back from maternity leave successfully requires them to return to the same role. They need protecting. 

5. Make workload appropriate to hours 

Anecdotally businesses talk about how much more productive working mums are. But demanding more work over less time will ultimately lead to burnout and this came out loud and clear in the report. 

Where flexible working requests are granted and hours are reduced, businesses must reduce workload in line with reduced hours. The report found that 57% of women that tried to work full time alongside having children ended up leaving the workforce anyway, many citing poor mental health. The pressure of managing work and home is often too much. 

It’s likely that there will still be higher productivity but the flex needs to be there to account for child sickness and sanity levels.

6. Build a flexible work culture for everyone

The report found that 98% of women want to work and 86% would choose to work three or more days per week. Only 2% of women choose to be stay-at-home mothers. 

Most wanted to work in a hybrid way. Offering flexible working drives engagement and keeps mothers in work. It was clear from the findings that once women found an arrangement that worked, they weren’t willing to give it up. 

Whilst there is no doubt some benefit to face-to-face time, it must be with purpose and bring value to employees. Implementing flexible working properly across the organisation with the tools and technology that enable it to be a success levels the playing field for everyone. It also stops a second-class status being attached to those not in the office Monday to Friday. 

Mandating days in the office unnecessarily is a waste of everyone’s time and restricts mums, in particular. Team meetings and kick off sessions where team building is needed are good reasons to meet up. Responding to emails or report writing…not so much. Allow employees to work in a way that suits them.

Fundamentally women are asking for some pretty basic things that businesses can, if they want to, deliver.

7. Move to outcome-based performance 

The reality is that businesses are still too focused on what they can see and not what is achieved. Optimally productive businesses focus not on time worked but on outcomes achieved. For mothers this is perfect. They get to work at times that suit them, rather than hanging out in an office not talking to anyone and accruing hours in unaffordable childcare. 

It requires trust and new management styles, but it is feasible and indicative of a truly thriving culture. 

8. Invest in mothers ongoing careers

There is a 32% drop off in women in management roles after having children and a 44% increase in admin roles. Failure to invest in women’s careers once they return from maternity was evident across the board. Women feel written off once they are mothers and the quality of conversation regarding future career plans evaporates. 

Businesses need to take action by focusing on career plans, succession planning and talent development for mums in the same way they do for those that don’t take career breaks. 

9. Actively encourage paternity leave

The quickest way to equalise the roles of men and women is to get men to take leave too. There is still just a 2% uptake nationally on shared parental leave, despite changes introduced by the government five years ago. 

Findings from the Careers After Babies report showed that, despite the changing role of dads in men under 40, men still felt paternity leave wasn’t yet normalised and not enough men in senior roles are doing it. Shared parental leave should always be on the table for discussion.

Businesses must do the basics

Fundamentally women are asking for some pretty basic things that businesses can, if they want to, deliver. At the very least, empathetic line management and support through an emotionally turbulent time is not beyond any business to deliver.

Knowing that this will affect so many women and that men increasingly have the same needs, means findings like this should not be ignored. 

Download the full Careers After Babies report here.

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