Category Archives: Maternity leave

Maternity leave – then what?

Maternity leave:  then what?
Maternity leave: then what?

Making decisions about going back to work after maternity leave is always challenging.  D-day looms large and is unavoidable. Decisions have to be made eventually. The period leading  up to the return to work can be one of great stress.

What goes on for the new mother?

  • Guilt and angst : this plays a massive and understandable role. The arrival is a bundle of joy who has become the centre of your new-found universe. You love being with your new-born and are fearful of missing major moments in your baby’s life.  You worry about his/her well-being, developmental needs and even safety if you make other childcare arrangements.  Only you can make that call. It might be helpful to put this phenomenon of a full-time stay at home Mum into historical perspective. The notion of a stay at home mum whose sole activity was to focus on children and home is rooted  in the post World War II  demand to keep jobs open for soldiers returning from the war and a need to increase a decimated population. At the same time we saw a distinct separation of work and home and the development of a child centred culture.  However, throughout history children have been raised by many people other than their mothers,  or by their mothers who took on  economically related tasks. In lower income groups women always worked and the upper classes farmed their offspring out to wet nurses and nannies. So this “mummy” dilemma in the overall historical scheme of things is relatively new.
  • Too much work: it is a lot of work. There is no other way to say this. But with good organisational skills and outsourcing low value work then there are ways  to prioritise. Many couples now use workplace practises in their homes.
  • Cost of childcare: there is a real need to be strategic and think long-term. Childcare costs are indeed high and women should campaign for tax breaks to defray expenses. If governments are serious about encouraging women to return to the workplace, they will make sure that happens and also cap childcare costs. But the short-term burden of childcare expenses should be benchmarked against the longer term impact of lost salary, career gaps and reduced future pensionable earnings caused by opting to work at a lower level or part-time to accommodate childcare responsibilities.
  • Lack of support network: women express concern about managing the responsibilities of career and family. The workload does increase exponentially with children. But very often the toughest negotiations are needed within the woman’s own home and relationships. In most developed economies where women make up 50% of the work force and are the most qualified, they are still carrying out 80% of household chores. There is something wrong with that picture.
  • The partner will have an affair with the nanny:    Any number of high-profile husband’s have had dalliances with their nannies: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Tiger Woods to name but three. But  if  the thought of finding the father of your baby in flagrante in the playroom is a real deterrent to returning to work, then that might suggest serious reflection is required.    Although it’s normal for any new Mum to feel a little insecure after giving birth, there are lots of hormones whizzing round.  Retaining your professional self  and financial independence is even more important long-term with divorce rate impacting as many as 50% of marriages.
  • Paternity leave: there is a growing movement to encourage men to take parenting leave to share the load.  In Sweden studies by the Institute of Labour Market Policy Evaluation suggests that higher levels of involvement by both men and women in childcare result in stronger earnings potential for women and a reduced divorce rate. What we are seeing is the pendulum swing and the emergence of the ” daddy factor” where men are acknowledged  for soft skills related to  parenting. Women of course are not generally afforded the same recognition.
  • Exploring new options: for many women, motherhood is a catalyst for other career transitions to find that elusive work life balance with as many as 33% leaving the corporate workforce never to return.

But after all the soul-searching,  the only people who can make those choices are the individual parents. For those that stay together they must also deal with the future consequences of those decisions. For those that don’t,  it is quite often the  single mother who faces those challenges alone.

Left holding the baby: Maternity leave without a strategy

Left holding the baby: Maternity leave without strategy

Left holding the baby: Maternity leave without a strategy

According to the Economist  (December 31, 1999) the oral contraceptive is  ” the greatest science and technology advance in the twentieth century“. This gave men and women hitherto unparalleled access in the developed world, to widely available and sophisticated birth control.

Pregnancy now is an event that is usually carefully planned.  Well mostly!  It seems that it’s after conception that the planning becomes a bit haphazard! When I coach clients around their maternity leave, it tends to be to deal with a problem on re-entry to the workplace. This can be in any time timeframe from months to years.  Very few women are like  Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer who bounced back within a couple of weeks! However,   I can count on one hand the number of times I  have coached a woman prior to maternity leave.

Small print
Women, depending where  they are located,  could  normally expect to return to a similar position,  at a similar level to the one they held  prior to their maternity leave.   The length of time can vary between countries.  Note well that the phrase does not stipulate ” the exact same job, in the exact same place, doing the exact same thing“.  This small phrase can cover a multitude of possibilities.

It is important that women have put their stake into the ground with regard to their return as early as possible. This is particularly important for senior women who are more difficult to replace on an ad interim basis than those in junior roles. In these cases if organisational shifts are made to accommodate the absence,  then additional  attention is advisable.

What strategies should a woman consider prior to her maternity leave?

  • Understand your company’s policy and  your statutory rights:   Many women become unstuck simply because they fail to inform themselves on maternity leave policies and the protocol for communication  in their organisations or even their legal position.  There can be wide differences from one organisation to another and between geographies.  It would generally be expected that you inform your immediate superior and/or the HR function,  normally in writing. Initially you will  only be able to give an estimate of the timeframe involved until your due date is confirmed.  .
  •  Be part of the cover strategy: If you are serious about your career you will indicate that you intend to return to work.  Make sure you are part of the process to find a replacement or arrange cover. You have the right to change your mind later about your return.  Some women do,  but this is a luxury that many cannot afford.  If you are running a team you should have succession plans in place. If you don’t, now is a good time to start making them.
  • Establish communication lines:  in some countries employers are not allowed to contact employees while on maternity leave. Nor do you want to be caught up in business minutiae while ” topping and tailing” your newborn.  If you are a senior employee, particularly in an operational role,  you will set guidelines with your direct reports regarding how you want to be contacted,  the timing and frequency of the contact and for which issues.
  • Preparing for the unexpected:  Sometimes events overtake everyone. Bosses are replaced, mergers and other organisational restructuring can happen in your absence.  Don’t allow yourself to be sidelined in any discussions if possible,  although this can be difficult if you are in the middle of giving birth and all you can anticipate is the next contraction.  Before you leave make sure you have all key emails and documents relating to your own performance, job description, address book and maternity leave agreements off site or on your own computer. I have a catalogue of nightmare scenarios reported by women whose statutory and contractual rights have been ignored or abused while away from their offices in times of change.
  • Maintaining visibility: At a senior level drifting off the radar is never  a good idea.  During your maternity leave consider scheduling ad hoc attendance at some key meeting, or perhaps a monthly briefing call with your replacement. You need to do more than drop by with the new arrival on your arm.
  • Establish childcare support in advance:  check out childcare options and decide which suits you best. Some crèches and day-care centres  actually have waiting lists. You may want to set up hiring processes for nannies.   Some women are also shocked at the cost of childcare and how it eats into net salary.  Think of this as a strategic long-term  investment in your career.   Also factor in the arrangements you make with your partner  about the distribution of childcare responsibilities. As Shirley Conran said  “You don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist.”
  • Plan for contingencies:  Think ahead –  what will you do if your baby become sick or there are other issues? Have back-up plans. Note the plural.
  • Re-entry debriefing:  Prior to your return,  set up meetings with key stakeholders to establish the process you are going to follow for your strategic re-integration. This could involve  discussions on the future role of your replacement who will now go back to a more junior role,  announcements, hand-over procedures, kick-off meetings etc.

Clear communication and managing expectations can support a smooth transition and go a long way to avoiding those unexpected surprises.

What has been your experience?

Children: A corporate inconvenience?

In a recent post I suggested that parenting and childcare  seems to have been relegated to the level of  ‘corporate inconvenience’  in many of our current business models, which elicited some comment.

Negative fallout is being reported for both men and women who take or wish to assume responsibility for parenting and childcare .   My thoughts were further compounded after reading that women of child-bearing age are considered to be employment risks  and still further with a recent proposal to investigate the extension of the provision of childcare  services in UK schools by lengthening the school day until 8.00pm

12 hour day care
Now it could be that outsourcing child care for what could be 12 hours a day for many, is a viable sustainable solution in societies and economies that have declining populations, aging work forces and skill shortages. I await the research with eager anticipation. But for the future of global economies, it does strike me that governments and businesses need to examine possibilities to create effective workforces, while allowing children to be raised in healthy environments, physically and emotionally.

Historically, for self-evident biological reasons, this has been a role assigned to women. As such a high percentage of educated and qualified personnel are now women, it seems crazy to sit back and allow their skills to be under utilised when they leave the workforce or choose to work below their capabilities so that they can raise their families.

But today in changing times what happens when men and women alike want (or need) both professional and child-care responsibilities?

To me it seems nothing short of a confused mess.

In 1977 only 50% of married men were part of dual-career households, which has increased today to  75%.   To achieve work life balance/integration whatever you want to call it, women in the 21st century are  being constantly urged to re-negotiate  the responsibility for household tasks within their own relationships.  This is a key benchmark in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report and partly accounts for why France  for example despite its progressive employment conditions for women, comes in at the lowly position of 48.

But for balance at home to become a reality men have to then negotiate their own roles with their employers.  An increasing number of men are now citing work/life balance as a major factor in career choice, an element which is strongly endorsed by Gen Y starting out on their careers.

Fatherhood  has been perceived by potential employers as a guarantee of corporate drive and career commitment.   On a longer term basis a wish for workplace flexibility for family reasons is considered to be  the “mummy track” to career suicide,  where men are  frequently advised not to pursue those options even becoming “supernumerary” following such requests. Single parent fathers with custody obligations and sole responsibility for their children at specific times are also on the increase,  adding to the  numbers  for whom flexibility is a need,  not a desire.

Skewed odds
So the odds of men achieving  parity in both the home and the workplace are equally skewed. This not just a case of stereotypical macho slothfulness and a desire to watch the World Cup with a beer, or their partners being unwilling to relinquish domestic supremacy, although they can both play a part,  but by  outdated business models and corporate cultures  which mitigate against all.

Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with parental leave. A study published by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation in March 2010 showed, , that a mother’s future earnings increases on average 7% for every month the father takes leave, with penalties and loss of benefits imposed for men who don’t take this leave. Parents may use their 390 days of paid leave however they want up to the child’s eighth birthday — monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly. There has apparently been a commensurate reduction in the divorce rate.

I can’t help but wonder if the very same “think tanks”, with their notable lack of women,  when yobs in hoodies go on the rampage and youth crime soars,  will be the very same ones wringing their hands in horror asking ” where are the parents?”

What do you think?

A great divide: planned parenthood and corporate planning

Corporate plans in place for a terrorist attack or natural disaster, but not maternity leave

Stereotypical thinking
I have just taken a flight across Europe. For 2 hours and 20 minutes straight, a new-born baby screamed without taking a breath the entire trip. The parent (male) and steward (male) did their level best to soothe the poor mite – but to no avail. It was a totally natural scene and possibly apart from being thankful it wasn’t their child, no one on that aeroplane gave the matter a second thought and especially not the gender of the 2 care givers

Perpetuating stereotypes
Which made me think of the Forbes Power Women List which came out last week. I’m not a fan and generally believe it leans towards bull rather than buzz, although I will admit this year’s list is an improvement on 2010, despite Christine Lagarde only coming in at #9. I also think perhaps somewhat contentiously that it promotes stereotypical thinking, just as much and perhaps more so, as it tries to debunk it.

A vital statistic that stood out for me in this year’s promotional roll call, in that slightly breathless, condescending, incredulous, ” didn’t they do well” tone, is that 88% of the women on the list have children. They are mothers. What’s particularly interesting about this information, is that it is even mentioned. I assume most of the Forbes powerful men list are fathers. Does anyone ever comment about that? Exactly!

Planned parenthood
One of the greatest historical changes to impact the lives of couples and women in particular in recent times (perhaps ever) in the developed world, is the wide availability of sophisticated birth control and contraception.The Economist (December 31, 1999) called oral contraceptives ” the greatest science and technology advance in the twentieth century

This has given both women and men (let’s not forget these are not immaculate conceptions) in developed economies, the opportunity to plan with the military precision of a space mission, not just the number of children they have, but also the timing of each pregnancy. Diets are adjusted, alcohol intake modified, exercise increased, temperatures taken, ovulation cycles monitored, sperm counts checked, baby rooms prepared, ante natal classes attended, showers held, mother and baby classes subscribed to. Books are bought, family are alerted, dad-to-be helps with all the heavy breathing, romper suits arrive by the dozen. Buggies, bouncers and baby chairs are ordered. Names are chosen, christenings or similar naming ceremonies are planned. Plan Bs hover in the background , with frozen eggs and sperm on hand just in case mother nature doesn’t oblige.

Strategic planning
So it would seem, notwithstanding the odd surprise, that having a baby has to be one of the most orderly and thought out processes that many men and women undertake in their lives. So I ask myself (and you too!) why does the planning seem to stop there? If employees are planning their families, why can organisations not plan to the same degree? Instead the careers of women in their 30s becomes a major elephant in the sitting room, that people hope will amble away on its own. And women do – in their droves.

Female workforce
Janine is a Client Services Director for a well-known financial services company based near Brighton, UK. She manages a team of 120, of which 90 are women. 80% of that number are between the ages 18 and 40. “ If all my team became pregnant at the same time, I’d have a problem!” she told me smiling. “As their manager I’m not allowed to ask my employees what their plans or intentions are with regard to having a family. Their supervisors are close to their staff in an informal way and have ideas about who we would move where and to cover which gaps and skill sets. But there is no official succession planning policy to cover maternity leave, although we do have an emergency plan in the event of a terrorist attack or other natural disaster! ”

Terrorist threat
Now I’m sure there could well be any number of subversive, underground, terrorist cells plotting to target financial organisations near Brighton, but I wonder how these threats, including a meteorological catastrophe, would stack up against the likelihood of any of those female staff becoming pregnant. There is a plan to cope with both of the former, but not the latter. Does that strike anyone as a little incongruous? I also find it frustrating than women are not expected to plan beyond the start of their maternity leave and although having a baby is discombobulating on many levels, it doesn’t close down brain functionality completely. They are having a baby, not a lobotomy.

The father factor
A Fatherhood Study carried out by Boston College tells us “ According to a study by the National Study of the Changing Workforce, for the first time since 1992, young women and young men do not differ in terms of their desire for jobs with greater responsibility (Galinsky, Aumann, & Bond, 2008). As a result, young women may be less prone to be the “accommodating spouse” in two-career couples, placing their career aspirations second to that of their male spouses”.

In fact the study also suggests that men also have different expectations. “Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider

Cultural changes
It would seem that although the expectations of both men and women are changing, organisations are not adapting fast enough to the cultural shifts in the societies around them. Economies need to counteract a declining birth rate and stimulate economic growth. The economy of the euro zone for example has been predicted to grow 16 per cent if women were in formal employment as much as men. Both men and women are looking for better work/life balance, not just women, and the business model for corporate culture, which creates a gender divide needs to be re-examined rather than emulated.

Lists such as the Forbes list with messages which portray women with successful careers as mothers are actually perpetuating stereotypical thinking rather than knocking it on the head.

Men get married and are fathers too.

Executive search, dinosaurs and maternity leave

And corporate dinosaurs should be left where they belong. In another era

You would think that when you reach a certain age there shouldn’t be much left in this life that can surprise you. But yet it does …every day! Whether it’s a person’s salary being the size of the GDP of a small Baltic state for doing a bad job, or last month when a candidate took a call on his mobile phone during an interview, without so much an embarrassed mumbled excuse. He was then surprised because the meeting was unceremoniously closed on the spot! What was he thinking? I’m not sure of the psychology behind this. Is it arrogance or ignorance? Now you can’t impress everyone all of the time, but you can impress most people, some of the time. This I do know.

Return of the dinosaur
Imagine my astonishment when I saw this little gem from Glencore’s ( the mining and trading giant, preparing to launch London’s biggest-ever flotation) newly appointed Chairman Simon Murray on board quotas “….pregnant ladies have nine months off”, women “have a tendency not to be so involved quite often” and are not “so ambitious in business”.

Barely moments into the onboarding process and seemingly unstoppable, he carries on, opening his mouth only to change feet. “All these things have unintended consequences. Pregnant ladies have nine months off. Do you think that means that when I rush out, what I’m absolutely desperate to have is young women who are about to get married in my company, and that I really need them on board because I know they’re going to get pregnant and they’re going to go off for nine months?”

Old boys board search
So although there was a subsequent apology – my first impression was not positive. Seemingly Mr. Murray was already under pressure to resign only 10 days after his appointment. When we consider the government committees, column inches and think tank hours invested in discussing womens’ positions on boards, this appointment has to bring the whole selection process into question, if there even was one. It has the hallmark of a hardcore old boys network, doing its very worst. Otherwise, how can the appointment of a dinosaur such as this, ever be justified and then now he has, what on earth was he thinking making press statements in this way? This is arrogance not ignorance.

Grass roots
I have spent the week with a number of experienced business owners and managers, all with families themselves. We discussed this article and the repercussions of maternity leave on their organisations in some detail. There were mixed feelings. Tim, owner of an orthodontic practise in Surrey, employing predominantly women, husband to a senior doctor and father to 2 daughters said ” Of course, I am fully supportive of women taking maternity leave, but not enough is said about the organisational difficulties current legislation presents especially for small businesses. My managers are not allowed to ask expectant mothers working in the practise, if they intend to come back to work after they have had their babies, or when. We are not allowed to contact employees while they are away, even if we want an update on a case they have been working on.”

Patricia a senior manager in a large health care organisation, a mother with two children, told me that in the past 7 years one of her senior staff members has been absent for over 50% of that time on maternity leave, which has had serious repercussions on her team.

Pierre, now a retired Managing Director of a construction company in Belgium and father of 3 adult children, as well as 7 grandchildren suggested ” If women are committed to their careers they find a way to pursue them at the same time as raising their families, together with their partners. A relationship with an employer is like any relationship: it’s about open communication. 30 years ago, when it was more common for mothers to stay at home, one of my best managers was a working mother. My daughter and daughters-in-law both work in professional jobs. Today, when both partners need to work for economic reasons – all parties have to find a way around this problem.”

Everyone’s issue
So what is the solution here? Women have children. Men have children. We have a declining birthrate with simply not enough people to economically support an aging population. Future generations will have probably have to work until age 70 unless they can earn and save enough to retire earlier.

This is a problem for governments, organisations and individuals alike. We need an effective legal framework which facilitates appropriate maternity leave, but within a structure and culture where women can remain connected to the workplace, without feeling pressurised. Organisations should be able to stay reasonably engaged with their employees, without fear of harassment accusations. The issue of course will be in the definition of “reasonable”.

And corporate dinosaurs should be left where they belong. In another era.

What do you think?

Motherhood and the CV Gap

 Wally Bock in Momentor says “Even with men taking paternity leave, women face a career challenge that few if any men will ever face. This one of those situations where there are no easy answers, only intelligent choices. Dorothy Dalton lays them out for you in what is the very best post I have ever seen on this topic.”

How to bridge the gap in your resume
One of the most frequently asked questions  that I am ever asked,  both as a recruiter and as a career coach,  is  about handling gaps in a CV caused by taking time out to raise a family. Response: there is no one magic wand answer. Or at least not one that I can think of.

Starting and raising a family is one of  the greatest challenges of  not just being a woman, but being a woman in the work place. We all handle it differently. There is no right or wrong way. Some return to work and balance  a career and professional demands with a variety of child care and support arrangements. Others decide to focus exclusively on their families for different lengths of time.

Experience
Both my kids are in their 20s and I can honestly say that I am familiar with many of the thought processes and situations that professional women go through when they have a family. I have probably experienced most combinations of childcare and work set-ups  imaginable: flexi-time, part-time, remote working, NOT working (aka ME) and  self-employment. I have been guilt tripped by pretty much everyone, including my kids and bosses in equal measure. My son is dyslexic and required  educational support when younger, but my business/family stress was finally reduced  when he discovered as a teenager,  that dyslexia is an anagram for “daily sex”. That helped with his learning difficulty more than anything I ever did.

Tough decisions
Becoming a full-time parent today is a luxury decision that few are able to make, but many still do. Very often for either economic reasons, or simply a desire to have a different purpose, many women choose to go back to work.

But frequently Rosanne Barr’s  one-liner  ” I can do anything. I’m a  mom”  doesn’t ring true for a large number.  It certainly doesn’t ring true for many employers.

Transferrable skills
Employers tend to want new hires to hit the ground running and are reluctant even to look at the transferrable skills from individuals who  come from another  business sector,  let alone anyone whose sector activity  has been running a home (hospitality, finance and facility management) school runs  (logistics) raising kids (team building, succession planning, change and conflict management, negotiation) supporting a partner (coaching, internal communication and external relations).

The soft skills that women possess in abundance, combined with the hands on managerial abilities ,  which are a prerequisite for running a family, should be easily transferrable into a business environment, particularly with some on boarding support. Unfortunately, many employers are unwilling or unable to see this. But equally many women don’t see it either. The years outside a corporate environment leave a large number feeling less than confident.

Strategic preparation
Some  career columnists recommend  adding a cover letter  of explanation as a returning Mum that you are now willing and able to re-join the work force.  Truthfully, that will no longer cut it.  That cover letter may not even make it past an ATS system. The pace of change in the recruitment sector has been so great that strategic preparation is important.

The earlier you start preparing a viable business case for your return to the market place the better. If you create a strategic plan before your offspring arrive on the scene, so much the better, but if not, just as soon as you can. You’ve heard of planned pregnancies? Well career planning is the same! It’s not enough to say  “Hey -ho, I’ve got a babysitter, I’m back”  and doors will swing open.  Whether the gap is 7 or 17 years the principles are the same.

  • Stay or get up to date in your profession. It’s not easy after spending a day dealing with the minutiae of every day family life to flick a switch and get into biz mode and read up on any developments  or trends in your now old profession but it’s worth it.  Cosmo  might be more appealing  than the Economist, or the packed lunches might be calling,  but try to allocate some time for your once professional self.  If you let this slide over the years , start getting up to speed quickly.
  •  Stay or get connected:  carry on if you possibly can with your professional networks. Subscriptions,  workshops and conferences can be pricey without corporate funding.  But there is still a lot of material  available on-line and social media networking is free. Sign up on LinkedIn  or any other professional site. LinkedIn has many different groups for mums –    over 26 pages when I just checked. There has to be something that suits you. If not create your own.   There are special groups on-line and in your own towns, specifically to support women in transition. Find yours and attend their events.
  • Stay or get in touch with old colleagues. They will give you the heads up on any opportunities.
  • Network –  any contacts you make in the course of your daily life may help.  Keep business cards, follow careers and stay in touch ( see above)
  • Consider working from home: is there anything you can do before you return to work to ease yourself gently into a business environment ?
  • Consider setting up your own business: Read my post Women who Make it Happen.  4, really normal  women recount their successful transition into entrepreneurship following periods raising their families. If they can do it –  so can you !
  •  Re – train  – this is a good opportunity to think about doing something different. What are your passions? What would you like to do with the rest of your life?  What are your skills? On- line courses make it easier to combine acquiring new skills with childcare and domestic responsibilities.
  • Invest in yourself – think long-term. Make your personal development ongoing.
  • Volunteer  – many women are very often involved in voluntary activities that rival any corporate activity. Fund raising , event management, PTA President, school or charity treasurer. Make sure that when you write your CV you include any metrics that support your efforts in terms of results and  processes. Raising  250K  for the new school library is a big deal and no different from meeting sales targets! Organising a gala garden party for your church with 600 people attending is no different to corporate event management.
  • Check your business image: if your wardrobe is full of office attire circa pre-motherhood –  a trip to the charity shop is essential. Nothing dates you more than looking out dated.

Even if you have done none of the above – it’s never too late to start.  As covered recently in Forbes , hiring managers are convinced by commitment , backed up by evidence that you can add value.  Their eyes will glaze over if the  only talk you can offer,  no matter how proudly,  is of raising your family.  Regrettably,   sometimes professional women can be  tougher than their male counterparts.

But occasionally wisdom comes from unexpected sources:  “ I’m a mother with two small children, so I don’t take as much crap as I used to.”  Pamela Anderson

So do you?