In terms of OECD countries, sadly Australia is still far from taking the lead when it comes to supporting pregnant women in the workplace. When Australian women reach the ages of 25 to 44, their participation in the workforce drops significantly. Many working mums don’t feel supported at work or that their needs are recognised.
The poor management of maternity leave is a key factor contributing to the loss of female talent in Australian business. With one in four women stating they return to work after maternity leave ‘because they are afraid not to’ (ABS), it is clear there needs to be greater efforts taken to streamline the maternity leave process and motivate women to return to work following such leave.
Women already face challenges regarding returning to work, such as emotional guilt at leaving a new baby, unconscious bias by others against mothers, a lack of acceptance of flexible or part-time working arrangements and the cost of childcare. It is important that maternity leave be managed effectively so it doesn’t add a greater burden on returning mothers.
According to the ABS, on average women spend eight months on maternity leave. Throughout this time many of these women have very little contact with their employer. In fact, communication tends to be poor on both ends.
Eight months is a long period of time to be in the dark about what is happening in your workplace – especially if the woman taking the time out is a project leader or has managerial responsibilities. A business can change significantly within a day, let alone two-thirds of a year.
Not only can this breakdown in communication be alienating for the employee, the employee’s professional and social networks can become disconnected, and the chances for a streamlined return to work are diminished.
Talk it up
Women should be kept well informed and engaged while on maternity leave. This should be done in a way that also encourages ongoing dialogue. This isn’t just the responsibility of employers. Women planning to take maternity leave should start the conversation about their maternity leave needs and goals before leaving the workplace. For example, some women may want to receive a monthly update or be consulted on big decisions. Unless women ask for communication throughout this period, it is likely their employer will assume they want to be left alone.
Keeping women in the loop is paramount to a successful maternity leave absence and return to work. If women are kept secure in the knowledge there is support and continued career growth opportunities, then the benefits will be far reaching, for the individual and the organisation. There are several benefits if women return to their place of employment following maternity leave:
- The ‘loyalty spin off’, where employee loyalty is improved, affects all women in an organisation, not just those returning to work;
- Knowledge and corporate memory can be more effectively retained;
- Recruitment and re-training costs are able to be contained;
- Job sharing/secondment that occurred during the leave can be used as a tool on return.
It comes back to open and honest communication. Regular newsletters, catch ups and email communication are ways for both sides to feel engaged and informed. Employers should be open about workplace decisions, and women on maternity leave should continue to participate and stay engaged when possible. Coaching and mentoring are only going to give strength to a desire to return to work.
These are not expensive strategies and they are not hard to implement. A healthy, progressive career path for working mums is well within reach.