Pregnancy and parenthood too often negatively impact women’s career prospects. How can organisations and new mums alike ensure this doesn’t happen?
New mums are a busy bunch. Sleepless nights coupled with endless wash cycles and round-the-clock watch on a vulnerable, albeit adorable, little blob means there isn’t much time for anything else. And despite parental leave existing for both partners, 95 per cent of primary parental leave is taken by women, according to data compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which can lead to career consequences when mums are out of the loop for too long.
Recent RMIT research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that mums should maintain communication with their employer, or risk being perceived as unambitious or lacking commitment to their job. Future employment prospects can also be impacted, as these women can be considered less career-oriented, and therefore less attractive candidates. This is especially so during longer periods of maternity leave.
Researchers surveyed 558 Canadian employees about their perceptions of job seekers who had been on maternity leave for a year. The employers were asked to review applications for a marketing manager position from a candidate pool comprised of four categories:
- Candidates that used a keep-in-touch program while on leave;
- Candidates whose employer had a keep in touch program, but they didn’t access it;
- Candidates whose employer had a keep in touch program, but it was not mentioned whether they had used it or not; or
- No mention of a keep-in-touch program in the candidates’ application.
Those in Group A were viewed more favourably by the surveyed employers, as they were perceived as having higher levels of ambition and commitment to their career.
Dr Raymond Trau, RMIT School of Management lecturer and co-author of the study says the findings show that women who take shorter periods of maternity leave have better employment prospects.
“When a woman takes a longer period of maternity leave, such as a year off work, they’re often perceived as caring and nurturing, but less ambitious and driven, whereas, when a woman takes one month off they’re often perceived as ambitious, assertive, driven and committed to their career,” says Dr Trau.
“Women who take these longer periods of maternity leave can often be penalised. The obvious forms of penalty are not being hired and not being promoted. The less obvious form is not having the opportunity to advance their career through training and development.”
New mum bias
Prue Gilbert, CEO and founder of Grace Papers (a platform that supports workplaces and parents navigate the dual challenge of career and parenthood) agrees that women face an “ambition bias” when taking extended periods of maternity leave.
“There are a number of different ways that this bias can manifest,” says Gilbert. “If they are in professional services or sales, for example, they often face a change in their client base. When they return to work, some of their clients may have been distributed to their peers.
“Women on maternity leave can miss performance appraisals and promotion cycles, which means they suffer a pay penalty. If they return to work on a part-time basis, they are often not offered opportunities of the same calibre. Only six per cent of managers in Australia work part-time, and as we know, the majority of part-time workers and primary caregivers are women.”
Even IT policies can work against women on maternity leave. According to Gilbert, it’s commonplace for workplace email accounts to be disconnected after three months of no access, under the assumption that the employee has permanently left the organisation.
“These systemic elements are in contrast to more explicit forms of bias and are generally unintended. They are essentially a hangover of the way systems were created with the model of a primary breadwinner and a primary caretaker in mind.”
What can organisations do to counter bias?
Gilbert says it’s time for organisations to delve deeper when it comes to the design of their systems. Firstly, before going on maternity leave, there should be a discussion with the organisation’s people and culture lead to ensure the expecting mother will be considered for a promotion, irrespective of the cycle. While the onus is usually placed on women to approach HR and management, Gilbert says the accountability needs to lie with both the employee and the organisation.
A more balanced approach would entail out-of-cycle performance appraisals, women on maternity leave being considered for a raise once pay review cycles come around and manager accountability for keeping in touch throughout parental leave.
“Many organisations have adopted a standard practice, such as a CPI increase (consumer price index), but I think it’s time to look at other options. There needs to be procedures in place that ensure those individuals are visible,” says Gilbert.
Paternity leave and flexible working arrangements should be encouraged and normalised by leaders, CEOs and sponsored role models. A man’s requests for flexible work arrangements is more likely to be denied than a woman’s, says Gilbert, which reinforces the problem.
Increasing the number of management roles that are performed part-time will also help address the issue of maternity bias.
Working as a mum
Gilbert says that new mums should focus on what they want to be doing – placing emphasis on their skills, talents and passions – rather then just in what capacity they wish to work. “If you can present your professional vision to your manager and remind them of your ambition, you will be better able to present a balanced value proposition which will make it easier to negotiate flexible work arrangements upon your return. Restructure the role around your vision, not your hours of work.”
It is this sense of shared responsibility that can break the mould and ensure that motherhood is not a barrier to career longevity and success.
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