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Absence Management

How maternity leave affects career

Whether they give birth or adopt, mothers are faced with how maternity leave affects career. According to a DCU Business School study, a manager’s perception plays an integral role in the effect maternity leave can have on career.

There are two ways a manager can view maternity leave—either as a brief interlude in a woman’s long-term career or a major disruption. [mfn referencenumber=1]Freeney, Yseult; van der Werff, Lisa; & Collings, David. Re-Engaging TalentPost- Maternity Leave: Enablers and Barriers to Positive Reintegration. Retrieved January 29, 2019, from DCU Business School website: https://dcubsblog.dcu.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/DCU-HR-Search-Maternity-Leave-Research-Final-Version.pdf.[/mfn] When managers take the latter view, women can have adverse return-to-work experiences.

Negative effects of maternity leave on career

The study’s top three negatives can plague any organization that doesn’t adequately support women re-entering the workplace after maternity leave.

  • Career derailment: Women can feel like their career is stalling post leave because of how the organization sees them—assuming their ambition and priorities have changed.
  • Unconscious bias among colleagues: Without realizing it, co-workers and supervisors can contribute to the negativity by presuming a woman isn’t as present, motivated, or interested.
  • Deteriorating professional relationships: Feelings of disappointment can be commonplace because women may feel forgotten and let down upon their return.

The length of maternity leave can also have adverse impacts. The longer women are away, the more they may be overlooked for promotions and have lower upward mobility in moving into management roles and receiving pay raises.[mfn referencenumber=2]Hideg, Ivona; Krstic, Anja; Trau, Raymond; & Zarina, Tanya. (2018, September 14). Do Longer Maternity Leaves Hurt Women’s Careers? Retrieved January 29, 2019, from Harvard Business Review website: https://hbr.org/2018/09/do-longer-maternity-leaves-hurt-womens-careers. [/mfn]

What maternity leave looks like around the world

Governments in Estonia, Slovakia, Finland, and Hungary provide nearly three years of paid parental leave.[mfn referencenumber=3]Ingraham, Christopher. (2018, February 5). The world’s richest countries guarantee mothers more than a year of paid maternity leave. The U.S. guarantees them nothing. Retrieved January 29, 2019, from The Washington Post website: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/02/05/the-worlds-richest-countries-guarantee-mothers-more-than-a-year-of-paid-maternity-leave-the-u-s-guarantees-them-nothing/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7f042dd7e855.[/mfn] In contrast, mothers in the United States are entitled to zero weeks of paid leave under federal law. If eligible, they make take up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

What can managers do?

Viewing the leave as a brief interlude versus a major disruption can help women have a more positive transition back into the workplace.[mfn referencenumber=1]Freeney, Yseult; van der Werff, Lisa; & Collings, David. Re-Engaging TalentPost- Maternity Leave: Enablers and Barriers to Positive Reintegration. Retrieved January 29, 2019, from DCU Business School website: https://dcubsblog.dcu.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/DCU-HR-Search-Maternity-Leave-Research-Final-Version.pdf. [/mfn] This approach can even strengthen professional relationships and dedication to the company. A manager’s support can mean the difference between a woman becoming so discouraged that she leaves the workforce and one who is inspired to fulfill her career aspirations.

Preparation can ease the transition.

  • Discuss the employee’s communication preferences while on leave and during her transition.
  • Work with her on a handover plan for her projects at the beginning and end of her leave.

Once she returns, be mindful of her needs.

  • If she requests a schedule change, be accommodating.
  • Schedule meetings at times convenient for her. Early morning or late afternoon meetings can be difficult due to daycare drop-offs and pick-ups.

What can your company do?

It all comes down to company culture. For some, this can mean shifting thinking—valuing results achieved over time spent in the workplace. Similarly, a phased or gradual return can help promote a positive transition. Mentoring programs and buddy systems that pair experienced parents with new parents can provide support.

What’s next?

More progressive policies enabling employees to take parental leave without consequence are necessary. They help employees feel valued and achieve work-life balance. They also assist organizations in attracting and retaining top talent. Finally, how managers perceive this time away can have a major impact on how maternity leave affects career.


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