This article from Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy is the second in a series exploring female talent.  It considers the challenges faced by employers in retaining women after maternity leave and offers some suggestions as to how managers can best support women that want to return to work. 

My first article explored what city employers can do to attract and retain female talent.  The greatest challenge to retention occurs when women decide to have children.  In the past debate has focused on how organisations can ensure their maternity leavers are maternity returners.  I believe the emergence of a global shift in male/female earning power among the most recent graduate population to join the workforce means the issue needs to be reframed.

What’s happening is that across the world the majority of graduates are now female - 57% in the UK and higher in other countries. For the first time women in their early twenties are out earning their male peers.

I envisage once this cohort starts to have children a significant shift will happen towards earning and caring responsibilities being shared more equally between both sexes.

The emerging attitude of millennials suggests this is what they want and expect.  In time more fathers will take extended periods of leave to care for their offspring.  In addition to thinking about how to retain women on maternity leave, organisations need to start planning how to embrace men’s desire to be more involved in parenting and less prepared to do the extreme hours often expected of them at the moment.

I realise that many organisations will not yet be experiencing this pent up desire on the part of millennial men to be more involved in parenting or to work more flexibly.

Additional Paternity Leave was first introduced a number of years ago and there wasn’t a big take-up. Last year Shared Parental Leave was launched and we are beginning to detect a steady trickle of men requesting SPL.  They are brave pioneers because it’s tough to be seen as career-committed when you’re a women taking maternity leave, and so to be a man to do so is much tougher. For this reason many of our clients have added Paternity Coaching to the Maternity Coaching they currently offer.

In time, as parental leave is shared, the topic of how men deal with the parental transition will attract and deserve its own research. (Indeed we intend launching some research in London into Gen Y men’s attitudes to careers and parenting later this year. Do get in touch if your company might be interested in participating). It will be interesting to see if the research and advice that we impart for women going on maternity is relevant to paternity leavers.  I’ll draw on this research to explore the reasons why women chose not to return and what organisations can do to ensure they do. 

Why do women choose not to return after maternity leave?

Let’s start by exploding some myths.  Women don’t leave organisations when they become mothers primarily to care for family or because they are less committed to their career. Research carried out by Dr Catherine Hakim found only one in five women are home-centred and 1 in 5 women are work-centred. 60% of women want both work and family in their lives.  That means that 80% of the female population want to work.

Research by Mainiero & Sullivan shows that women are more “relational” in their career decisions than men have traditionally been.  That is not to say, however, that they are less career-committed even if they do choose to work flexibly for a period of time. Unfortunately too many managers assume that returning mothers, particularly those who elect to work flexibly (even when it’s only working from home on one day a week), have lost their focus on their career because they are now committed to being a mother.

Often it is this inaccurate perception that motivates women to leave. They feel that taking time out to have babies negatively impacts their career and pay, as does their decision to work flexibly. They want to be able to combine work with becoming a mother and need some flexibility from the organisation to not just allow them to do that but to encourage and support them.

Line managers play a critical role

Joy Bussell’s research shows why it’s crucial to establish whether line managers share any of these common misconceptions.  She found women make up their minds about the viability of continuing in their career, based, to a significant extent, on the attitude of their immediate manager. 

An understanding that women want to work should help managers view returning mothers in a different light.  It is also wise for managers not to assume they understand what a returning mother wants from work.  Many well-intentioned managers have given less taxing work to returners assuming this is what they want when a more challenging project is just the mental stimulation some new parents want.

While many organisations offer flexible ways of working to make home and work life manageable, most struggle to make them work.  I believe this is because managers haven’t really been taught to manage a flexible workforce.  The fear that clients won’t like work delivered through a flexible workforce can result in flexible workers being assigned less important work, denying them the “stretch” projects essential for career progression.

What can managers do to support women that want to return to work?

We developed the VAST model to help managers understand the distinct stages of the maternity transition and to provide tips to manage each stage.


When a women first learns that she is pregnant she begins to scan her work environment through a new, “ how would I do that if I had a baby,” lens.  She questions whether she will be able to get through her workload, delivered to the same standard with less time available. This presents a golden opportunity for the manager to reassure her that she remains an important part of the future irrespective of her pending leave.

Don’t shy away from having this conversation for fear of saying something wrong.  The only thing you can’t ask legally is when she plans to come back.  Ask open questions to avoid making assumptions about her career plans. And do tell her that she’ll be missed. Many managers I coach are nervous that saying so will put undue pressure on her to come back. On the occasions it has happened, all of the women on the receiving end have told me that they were really pleased to receive that vote of confidence.  

Consult them early on about handover plans to ensure work is handed to someone they trust.  Don’t wait until the last moment because leave may start earlier than anticipated and also it causes stress for some people. They fret that the work they’re doing might not be covered as well as they would like. They also fret that it might be covered too well.  So, be sensitive to that threat which most women don’t want to admit to ie that their maternity cover might do their job better than them. We encourage managers to have a performance review session with their leaver before they go as it’s a good opportunity to agree how they’re doing. Positive feedback at this stage bears fruit later when women can experience a dip in confidence when they’re juggling two roles.


It’s impossible for a first time mum to appreciate the impact having a child will have on her life until she has experienced it.  Before maternity leave some women talk as though the baby is something they will add to their “to do” list without appreciating the strength of emotion they will feel for their child. 

Once the baby has arrived the new mother begins to appreciate the strength of feeling she has for the baby and just how it will change her life.  As a manager it is vital that you make contact and send something personal when the baby arrives, don’t just let your secretary do it from the team. It’s worth bearing in mind that not all women dread going back to work. We have coached many women who crave that return to work and getting back to their old selves again.  They can feel reluctant to admitting to this lest they are seen as “unnatural”. One woman I coached told me she was asked regularly on her return “Why are you still working full-time? “as if there was something wrong with her.


How a woman feels about going back to work can vary.  While some relish the opportunity for adult company and brain stimulation others find it harder to leave their baby in the care of another person.  The fates often conspire to ensure illness strikes the very day she is expected back. 

Factor these possibilities into your thinking as manager.  The return date might be flexible and she may feel emotionally wobbly on her return.  As before, ask how she is feeling rather than making assumptions.

Make sure all the practical things are in place to show you are prepared for and welcome her return e.g. computer login set up and company credit card active if that’s appropriate. And of course it’s great to just hear “welcome back” even if it’s just a phone call if a face to face is not possible.


From the moment they return, women constantly evaluate how they can manage work and home life.  Not only do they have the job on trial but often feel on trial themselves feeling judged for having to leave the office on time due to childcare arrangements.  We know from research that women are most likely to quit their jobs a year to 18 months after coming back, particularly after the second child.  At this point the constant juggle of managing work and home life can lead them to consider whether it’s all worth it. Often with the exorbitant cost of childcare, returning mothers are essentially earning nothing for quite a number of months a year. If there doesn’t appear to be a career path to earning more, they may well start to look around. The silver bullet is often flexible working but sometimes even when the company is bending over backwards to give that flexibility, if the culture itself doesn’t support it, then it chips away at her resilience.

As a manager it is essential you show your support for flexible working.  Intervene in office banter such as “ on a half day again?” or “it’s ok for you part timers.” Point out that what gets done counts more than when it gets done.

It is now widely accepted that organisations perform better and make better decisions when leadership is shared by both sexes.  As the millennial generation progresses to the parenting stage of life those organisations that have worked out how to effectively support both sexes through extended periods of parental leave will have the greatest success retaining talent.

This is the second in our two part series on female talent. 

Part one: "How to attract and retain female talent for the future


 By Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director, Executive Coaching Consultancy.



Do you have a view to share on any of the issues raised in this article? What is your business doing to recruit and retain female talent?  Leave your comments in the box below.

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