“Career Limiting Move (jargon): Any action endangering one’s future prospects of getting plum projects and [salary] raises, and possibly one’s job”. (Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com).

We’ve probably all executed a few of these in our time. Some more cringeworthy than others, of course. Hitting ‘send to all’ in inappropriate circumstances surely has to top the list. As does leaving the company laptop in a taxi after a few too many post-work drinks. Or having a baby and taking statutory maternity leave.

Say what?

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 84% of British businesses say they support expectant mothers and those on maternity leave. Pop open the non alcoholic sparkling grape juice; such enlightened practices are surely cause for celebration? A success story for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and a tremendous step forward for pregnancy and maternity rights? Well, we hate to take the fizz out of your metaphorical drink, but all is not what it seems. Because, when asked for their viewpoint, 77% of mothers said that they had had a negative or discriminatory experience in the workplace. So, it would seem that UK businesses have at least two major problems on their hands. The first is that they are displaying a colossal lack of self-awareness. And the second is that forcing female employees to choose between parenting and working has a proven detrimental effect on the bottom line. According to the Women’s Equality Party co-founder, Sandi Toksvig, unleashing the full potential of women in the workplace could add an extra £23 billion to the Exchequer.

Let’s start with the facts (Source: Business In The Community). Women currently make up 47% of the UK workforce. Of these working women, just over a third have dependent children. And out of all mothers (with dependent children) in the UK, 43.6% are in full time employment.

Of course, having children is not every woman’s dream. And, sadly, there are some women who would love to, but can’t. So it would be entirely wrong to assume that every working woman will ultimately seek a maternity break, just as it would be wrong to assume that every mother wants to swap Monkey Music sessions at the local library for the 9am budget review in the office.

But it seems that, for many of those who do, the hurdles are so insurmountable that when it comes to the crunch the only feasible decision is to put down the career and pick up the baby. Managing both seems like a juggle that leads to a permanent state of ‘working mothers’ guilt’.

54% of working mothers leaving the workplace feel that they need a better work – life balance. It’s not all the fault of employers, to be fair. To work or not to work (as a mother of young children) is often an economically driven decision.

It’s a mental shift change, too. Because the simple act of going to work costs a lot more money once you have children. After factoring in childcare costs and travel to work costs, the remaining ‘disposable’ income is depressingly less than it would have been previously. For women in some lower paid jobs, it actually costs money to go to work. Unless you love what you do, the argument for returning in these circumstances is weak, at best. Cultural ‘stereotyping’ has its part to play, as well; 69% of women report that society expects them to put family before career. The problem is that it takes a pretty enlightened and understanding employer to be comfortable taking second place on the priorities podium. And, finally, for some it is quite simply a matter of choice. There’s no two ways about it. Parenting is a full time job in itself, and for many there is just no need, reason or desire to add employment into the mix.

But, if you love what you do, you earn enough money doing it to make it worthwhile, and you’ve invested years of hard work and training to make that happen, should it be so hard to achieve the delicate balancing act between negotiating over the table in Meeting Room 3, and negotiating over the dining table at home? What’s more, for many women, keeping the career fires burning is as important as keeping the home fires burning, in the long run. Some careers can survive a long-term break. But in many lines of work, if you’re out of the game for too long, you’re out of it forever. All well and good while the parenting role is full on, but it can leave a yawning chasm for some once the kids grow up.

So, rather than throw working mothers and expectant mothers off the equivalent of a career cliff, what can businesses do to support them in returning to the workplace with confidence?

1) First and foremost, know your legal obligations and don’t step outside them. If you aren’t sure, seek advice, and bear in mind that discrimination can be direct or indirect.

2) Never judge an otherwise suitable candidate’s cv on the basis of a career gap, without finding out the reason for it. Consider what they may have gained from their maternity or career-break, however short or long; after all, the work environment isn’t the only place where skills can be honed. Patience, negotiation, resilience and hard work all come hand in hand with parenting, but they’re equally handy attributes to have in the workplace.

3) Consider developing a Returnship Programme. Designed to actively encourage individuals back into the workplace after an extended career break, they are an ideal way to attract a more diverse candidate pool, and are of course, a likely way of encouraging women returners in particular. Such programmes are paid, and typically include training, a chance to refresh skills and meet others who are in a similar position. At approximately ten to twelve weeks in length, they can be an ideal way to resource specific one off projects and can often lead to a permanent employment relationship as a result. A win / win for everyone concerned.

4) Not every woman returning to work will be looking for flexibility, but for those who are, make sure you offer the kind of solutions that suit both employer and employee. Don’t fall into the common trap of assuming that everyone fits neatly into the same box. Having a blanket agreement that everyone can leave at 5pm if they only take half an hour lunch break isn’t really the embodiment of flexibility. Flexibility is about discussing each employee’s circumstances on a case by case basis, and determining a mutually acceptable solution. Of course, there has to be a culture of fair and equitable practice, but exercising a rigid ‘one policy fits all’ approach to flexible working is, by nature, a contradiction in terms. In the modern working world, there are many ways in which working practices can be adapted to make the family – career scales balance out; remote working, phased return, shorter hours, part time hours, job sharing … the list goes on.

5) Engage directly and actively with any returning mothers, but don’t leave it until 9am on the first day back. Returning to work is a huge thing, even for the most career driven, ball breaking, go getting executive. For a start, there’s the angst of leaving a child, even with the very definition of Mary Poppins. And that aside, a lot can change in a business in a short time; systems, people, processes. For women on maternity leave, KIT (which stands for Keeping In Touch) days can be an excellent way to ensure the transition from ‘mum’ to ‘working mum’ is as easy as possible. KIT days are optional (so you cannot force an employee to use them), paid, and limited to ten days in total during the maternity leave period. They do not have to be taken consecutively. Bear in mind also, that it is a good idea to discuss the type of work projects and the workload you have in mind for your returning employee. Being treated with ‘kid gloves’ after a maternity break can feel patronising, but by the same token, being overloaded will simply create stress and pressure. Everyone is different, so the only way to get this right is to consult and involve your employee.

6) So you’ve done the KIT days, and your employee is all lined up for day one back in the office. Just as you would (should) consider a proper organised on-boarding programme for a new starter, you should consider creating some sort of structured plan for your returners. Nothing screams ‘Oops we forgot you were coming,’ more than finding her workspace cluttered with the overflow of neighbouring colleagues desks, or, worse still, the personal effects of the maternity cover employee. Does she even still have a desk? Has her computer login been reinstated? Have key stakeholders been informed of her return? Does she know what her objectives are? And is anyone taking her for a ‘welcome back’ lunch?

7) Be a nice person. If you can recognise the need to allow her to put her three year old first when chicken pox strikes, you can as good as guarantee that she will move heaven and earth to make up for it at the next available opportunity, when the need for flexibility falls in your favour. A bit of give and take in life goes a long way.

8) Finally, join many other British businesses in supporting the #WorkingForward campaign. Developed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in response to the yawning gap between the perceptions of employers and the perceptions of expectant and new mothers, this campaign sets out to make our workplaces the best they can be for those ‘in the family way’. Step up and join a coalition of businesses who are leading the way on pregnancy and maternity rights for employees, and sharing their advice, knowledge, and expertise with their peers. You can sign up and pledge your support, or tweet your support using #WorkingForward and join their LinkedIn group.

Parenting and working combined is like a constant state of fire fighting. Her three year old can be excused for creating havoc where it isn’t needed. You can’t. And nor should you want to, because you could, inadvertently, be pushing some of your top talent towards the exit without even realising it.

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