With the continuing debate about workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap, it’s easy to forget just how much life has changed for working women over the past twenty or thirty years. I was vividly reminded of that when I came across a book aimed at women returning to work in the 1990s, written by my mother (who was a journalist and author specialising in careers) to accompany a BBC Radio 4 series of the same name. Making a Comeback by Margaret Korving hit the Sunday Times Business Books top ten in 1991, and was written very much from the viewpoint of a working mother, as alongside sound advice on how to identify your skills and what training might be available, it also provided suggestions for how to juggle home vs work.
Modern conveniences such as freezers and microwaves were highly recommended, as was the use of timetables splitting responsibilities with family and friends so that washing, cleaning and childcare were all covered, so that the woman could go to work whilst continuing to run the house. At the time, there was predicted to be a shortage of school leavers going into the workplace, and therefore employers were keen to attract a different kind of employee – the Equal Opportunities Director of the Midland Bank at the time, Anne Watts, wrote a foreword encouraging readers to return to work, saying that “enlightened employers will value your maturity, develop your skills and make you a very welcome ‘returner’”. The view then was that many women would have given up work completely on having children, and might only be thinking about returning once their children were at school. Of course at that time, taking maternity leave might well have coincided with the introduction of new technology into the workplace so the fear of lacking computer skills referred to in the book was very real for many women.
The big thing that’s changed since then of course is that it’s now the expectation that women will return to work after maternity leave, although I do think that many of the other challenges are the same, especially when it comes to juggling work and home.
One of the major challenges that still affects women returners is the issue of confidence. I have worked with a number of hugely talented, highly competent women who on returning from maternity leave have plunged into a real crisis of confidence. These seem to be rooted at least in part in redefining how they view themselves, and of managing the conflict many feel between work and home. Some have felt great guilt towards their teams because they are working shorter hours, believing that they are somehow ‘letting them down’, whilst others have struggled to adapt to the changes which have taken place in their absence, whether that’s about changes of clients or changes in the seniority of their colleagues.
As a manager, it took me some time to recognise what was happening – because I didn’t view them any differently, I didn’t understand that some women felt differently returning to work after maternity leave. If we are to truly address what we now clearly know is the negative impact on women’s careers and salaries post maternity leave, then we need to build programmes and initiatives supporting women on their return to work. We need to build post-maternity induction schemes that go beyond ‘do your flexible hours suit you?’ to restore confidence, add skills and empower women to reach for career success alongside motherhood.
Golin London has partnered with former Starcom MediaVest director Liz Nottingham and f1 recruitment’s Amanda Fone on the Back2Businessship returner programme for the past two years – an initiative that supports parents struggling to re-enter the workplace after taking a career break. The programme combines career planning, help on how to approach the jobs market, confidence building sessions and practical advice on how to manage your first 90 days back in the workplace. What a great idea, and kudos to everyone involved for quietly getting on with an initiative that has the potential to make a real difference to many women.
The Golin London scheme is aimed at women who have been out of the workplace for more than three years – but what’s to stop other agencies taking elements of this programme and adapting it to support any woman returning to work after maternity, parental or extended family leave? Every agency worth its salt will have a decent induction scheme for new employees, to which they really ought to be adding a return to work scheme. It’s time we provided practical support to restore confidence and accelerate women’s professional development and job satisfaction post-maternity leave. Let’s do it.