Maternity leave
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Want to retain your top female employees? Here’s what you need to do

15 Mar 2018

New DCU research reveals what post-maternity best practice is for Irish employers.

On International Women’s Day, we took a closer look at gender inequality in the workplace and whether or not we’re even moving in the right direction.

Of course, the gender pay gap is a hotly discussed topic (though we still have a very, very long way to go there) and then there’s the paltry number of women in senior positions.

But these are just two of the obstacles women face. The need for many women to take maternity leave should be irrelevant when it comes to discussing their career, and yet it has caused women professional problems for decades.

A quick Google search will bring up countless stories of women who were demoted, forcibly relocated or even replaced. While the internet is renowned for throwing up horror stories on any topic, the fact that these things happen at all is pretty startling.

While considerable attention is paid to the underrepresentation of women at senior levels, almost no research has examined the impact of maternity leave on potential disengagement from career progression.

However, in the first study of its kind in Ireland, Dublin City University (DCU) has identified the best things employers can do for their female employees after maternity leave.

‘How an employer deals with maternity and post-maternity leave could be the difference between having and keeping a high-performance staff and a high turnover’

The research was conducted by DCU Business School and sponsored by HR Search. Led by Dr Yseult Freeney, Dr Lisa van der Werff and Prof David Collings of the DCU Leadership and Talent Institute, the study found that organisations that view maternity leave as a brief interlude in a woman’s career are the most successful in retaining high-potential female employees post-maternity leave.

The data shows that how employers behave and the practices they put in place for employees post-maternity leave is crucial when it comes to retaining top female talent.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that when maternity leave was viewed as a major disruption, negative experiences were more common.

With healthy talent pipelines more important than ever and a powerful spotlight on organisations’ gender gap, how an employer deals with maternity and post-maternity leave could be the difference between having and keeping a high-performance staff and a high turnover.

More than 300 women who were identified as high-potential employees were interviewed as part of DCU’s research.

Three key issues were highlighted when maternity leave was viewed as a disruption: career derailment, unconscious biases amongst colleagues and a deterioration of professional relationships.

In each case, these issues were compounded by a lack of open and transparent communication between the returner and their line manager.

In situations where maternity leave was viewed as simply a brief interlude in their career, women who returned to work post-maternity leave felt valued with enriched professional relationships, and had a renewed focus.

One HR professional interviewed for the study said: “This is one year out of a possibly 30-40-year career and that is what we are trying to build a culture around.”

What can employers do?

“Our research shows that maternity leave forms a critical juncture for many women in their careers,” said Freeney, associate professor in organisational psychology.

“Managers who take a longer-term view often signal greater support to returners who, as a result, feel more valued and are far more likely to positively reintegrate into the organisation.”

The research has identified key practices employers and HR professionals can put in place to ensure that women who return to work post-maternity leave have a positive experience.

Along with ensuring that employers view women’s maternity leave as a brief interlude, the study showed that implementing line manager training to support the transition back to work was essential.

The study also advised developing a role model system to enable women to share experiences, permitting phased return and employing flexible and agile practices for all, not just women.

Some of the common pitfalls to avoid include: poor communication between returning women, managers and colleagues; unconscious bias or assumptions that returning women will be less engaged in their work; and neglecting logistics in preparation for their return, such as IT needs.

These significant pitfalls are what leads to managers overlooking returning women for promotions or curtailing opportunities for involvement in big projects.

This is how women who come back from maternity leave can all-too-often feel undervalued, behind in their career and, ultimately, that they don’t want to stay.

According to a returner in the banking and finance sector, coming back from maternity leave can make you feel the need to prove yourself all over again.

“I think there is a bit of an assumption that you’ve had a baby and you’re on the go-slow, which is not true,” she said. “When you come back, there’s not the assumption that you are the same person who left before you had the baby.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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