Imagine that a temporary absence from your workplace could lead to 10 years of sustained high performance being forgotten. Imagine that your relationship with senior partners at your firm, with whom you had previously worked closely, significantly worsened.
This represents the experience of so many talented women on the return to work after parental leave. It just suggests that many firms are failing to support female talent making this return and that women are often left feeling frustrated and disappointed by it.
For many women, returning to work after parental leave is a key career transition point. Before returning from leave, many women feel mixed emotions: concern about leaving their child with another caregiver, but eagerness to return to an adult, professional world where they have mastered the subject matter. But even so, returning to work after leave is harder than many women anticipate.
Understanding what matters to top female talent in this situation, and what makes some transitions tougher than others is crucial. Research has shown that women express concern about leaving their children, but also excitement about returning to work. All of them eagerly look forward to getting back to the routine of working and to rejoining their colleagues.
On returning to work, the women do realise that returning to work was tougher than they’d expected. They experience a significant decline in positive emotions once they return to work, reflecting the lived challenges of this transition. In many of the firms, parental leave continues to be viewed as a major disruption. As a result women’s careers get derailed after returning from leave, colleagues hold unconscious biases against the returning women, and professional relationships also deteriorate after returning from leave.
There are instances of positive outcomes as well. This is mostly in companies where the managers recognize parental leave as no more than a brief interlude in a person’s long-term career. In those supportive company cultures, returning women report a renewed energy and focus for their work, a feeling of being valued, and an enhancement of professional relationships.
The irony is that while most organizations spend heavily on onboarding programs for newcomers and graduate recruits, almost none pay the same level of attention to reintegrating employees after parental leave. This is a key area that organisations and specifically HR leaders need to look at.
Mentoring programmes for returning employees, informal buddy systems and open dialog with the returning women is critical. Some of these measures should begin before maternity leave and include how to approach leave, the individual’s communication preferences while on leave, and the return phase. HR leaders need to be aware that this is a deeply personal, individual transition for everyone — and that they play a crucial role in influencing the experience. Something as seemingly small as the timing of meetings can make a big difference.
The return to work after parental leave is a challenging transition for women, with a significant risk of career derailment. However, leaders can significantly improve the experience of these mothers and lead to better outcomes for parents and organizations alike. A key point is to reflect on the corporate culture around parental leave and to educate managers about how they can best work with returning mothers to ensure a smooth transition, with a focus on open conversations around their preferences.