A report published by the Government’s women and equalities select committee has stated that ‘urgent action’ is needed to give pregnant women and new mothers more protection at work after a “shocking” increase in discrimination. The number of expectant and new mothers forced to leave their jobs has almost doubled to 54,000 since 2005, the report stated. Currently, 77 per cent of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination at work, compared with 45 per cent 10 years ago and 11 per cent lost their jobs, according to the study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission in March. The statistics are pretty dire but managers can definitely play their part in ensuring the retention of new mothers in the workplace.
So much of how we treat new mothers in the workplace is bound up in rules, argues Laura Harrison, strategy director for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “Employers often forget that all women are different. Managers need to ask their pregnant employees how comfortable they are in talking about the pregnancy. Some pregnant women can feel very vulnerable during pregnancy.”
Harrison advises manager to negotiate the ‘Keeping in Touch’ (KIT) days before the pregnant employee goes on maternity leave. “Managers also need to be mindful that women can feel very different once they are on maternity leave. An individual woman may want to keep in touch or may find it difficult to re-enter work in the early stages of having a baby.”
Charlotte Sweeney, founder of Charlotte Sweeney Associates believes that companies need to focus on the support they can give pregnant women and new mothers by offering them coaching when they return to work, encourage the use of ‘KIT’ days to stay connected to the workplace and offer the use of a ‘buddy’ who is another women who has since returned to the workplace after maternity leave. “Employers and managers can do a lot more to address the challenges, such as offer pre, during and post maternity leave support to pregnant women and new mothers so that they feel more able to talk about their pregnancy and taking the time out of the workplace. This could include individual coaching as well as discussions with the wider team as to how the work is going to be covered during this time out of the office. There needs to be much more support for line managers – many shy away from these conversations as they are concerned about saying the wrong thing and just not sure about the type of questions they can ask. Ensure that all line managers are given advice and support as soon as they know one of their team will be taking maternity leave – for some, this will be the first time of dealing with it.”
Managers should avoid stereotyping mothers in the workplace, remarks Mark Smith, professor, human resource management at Grenoble Ecole de Management. “Managers should not assume mothers returning to work aren’t interested in a professional career. Managers shouldn’t reinforce old stereotypes that women don’t want to return to their previous career path.”
Sweeney urges line managers to normalise the pregnancy and maternity leave as much as possible. “Given the total amount of years we are all potentially going to be working, taking some time out for maternity and raising a family is a small period of time out and shouldn’t have a detrimental impact on careers that it can quite often have. Encourage a working relationship where you can talk about the individual support required whilst getting ready to take some time out on maternity level and encourage colleagues to think about how and when they may decide to come back to the workplace.” She added that considerations of how they will manage the childcare within their wider support network is hugely important. “It shows that you are considerate to the wider needs of your colleagues as well as getting them to start to thinking about the practical requirements such as childcare, flexible work arrangements and places where breastfeeding mothers may be able to express and store milk during their working hours.”
Managers need to approach managing maternity leave with long-term talent management in mind, recommends Harrison. “This is a retention issue and the loss of organisational knowledge if you lose women after maternity leave. If women go back and feel they are under-valued or by-passed for promotion then they will be disengaged and that individual will simply be transacting with you. It’s the managers’ responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. The more that HR departments can support diversity and inclusion and support the line managers in feeling that it’s more than a box-ticking exercise, the better.”