Despite decades of reform, and an even longer period of campaigning, we are increasingly recognising that gender inequalities persist in the workplace.
While the inequalities might not be as obvious as they were in the past, when blatant discrimination was both legal and, to a degree, expected, things like gender pay gaps demonstrate that things are still not quite where they should be.
And maternity is one of the major issues.
One of the biggest research studies, covering nearly 50,000 nurses in Scotland over eight years, found that even in nursing, a career path with a high degree of women professionals, having children hindered their career progression.
Furthermore, this effect lasted their entire career.
Mothers never regained the ground they lost – meaning they missed promotions and pay-rises they would, otherwise, have gained.
On the other hand, there is evidence that businesses that take a positive and proactive approach to maternity create benefits for everyone.
The mother is likely to find the experience more positive, return to work more effectively, and have better physical and mental health long afterwards. And the business benefits by increasing the retention of high-value staff members and creating a positive culture that all staff appreciate.
The difficulties of maternity leave
Perhaps the biggest issue is that most people have not really caught up with the impact of maternity.
It was not all that long ago that many businesses would simply address the problem by dismissing the pregnant worker. The cultural expectation was that women became mothers, and therefore ceased to be workers.
The modern equivalent is, perhaps, viewing it just as an extended period of time off. An inconvenience, but essentially the employee will disappear for a few months to have a baby, nurse it for a while, then just come back to the same old job.
But this fails to recognise that for anyone having a child, whether they are giving birth or adopting, it’s a major change that will impact every aspect of their lives.
While work-life balance is seen as important, it seems to have missed maternity leave, where companies perhaps focus on their legal duties and perhaps fail to consider their wider duty of care to an employee. This can be seen through the specific phases of maternity.
The impending arrival
Anyone who has been pregnant at work, or even worked with someone who is, might recognise the time. For the most part, it’s business as usual, the mother-to-be will get on with their job. For the most part, the mood might appear to be excited anticipation.
But, actually, the parent-to-be will be likely to suffer from significant anxieties. Not only about the impending birth, but also about what will happen to their job while they are away, especially if they are involved in arranging their own cover.
After the birth
The birth of a child is a considerable change for anyone. The mother will be going through a period of rapid adaptation, feeling the stresses of caring for a child who is, to begin with, completely dependent on her. Work will seem a world away, increasing the sense of isolation and disconnection, feeding fears that she might never be able to cope or return to a ‘normal’ life.
The return to work
Again, while a return to work might be celebrated, this often disregards the feelings of the mother. Having just got used to being a parent, they will now be juggling both childcare and work.
The anxieties of leaving their child with someone else will be compounded by the anxieties of returning to work. What if their replacement was terrible, and has left endless problems for her to fix? Even ironically, what if they were great and everyone wishes they could stay!
What most employers fail to realise is they will have changed, too. Those changes will have been gradual and unnoticed, but for many mothers the new faces they see, systems they use, or processes they follow, mean it’s more like starting a new job than returning to an old one.
How do you solve these challenges?
While some businesses have hit the headlines by offering their senior female employees the opportunity to delay motherhood and freeze eggs, maternity coaching offers a much more effective, and practical, solution.
Although a maternity coach is, primarily, for the mother, the benefits are felt far more widely.
For the best results, maternity coaching should be made available at the beginning of the maternity period. In fact, the ideal situation would be to begin early engagement with a maternity coach before the pregnant individual leaves for their maternity leave. That said, maternity coaching is beneficial even if commenced later.
The coaching will cover both the practical and slightly more abstract needs of the mother.
They might address issues like company policy or the necessary details like handovers and return to work dates, but they can also help with things like work-life balance, managing expectations, and work performance. And they will address some of the areas more traditionally associated with coaching, like communication or career goals, but from an angle that is relevant to impending or recent maternity.
The benefits of maternity coaching should, perhaps, be obvious. Those who are going on maternity leave do so with more confidence and less anxiety. With concerns about their work removed, they can focus on themselves and their growing family.
But benefits also accrue to the employer.
Women return to work with more confidence and are fully effective in their role more quickly.
There is also higher retention, one UK business found that post-maternity retention increased from 80% to 94%. While this reduces recruitment costs, it also helps retain expertise and experience in-house, creating a positive effect on productivity.
It even helps with recruitment among people who may never benefit from the policy, helping identify the employer as forward-thinking at a time when people are placing a higher value on the culture and ethos of their employer.
Maternity coaching might, initially, seem like one of those things that is a nice perk or a good thing to do.
But for those businesses that have adopted it, it’s also been an incredibly good investment.
About the Author
Rachel Morris – As an experienced coach, supports business leaders to gain clarity around who they really are right now, where they are aiming to be and how they are going to get there. Her client list includes leaders from brands such as Channel 4, URBN and Chanel, and she coaches on a daily basis.