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Even when it is meant with the best intentions it is not a good idea to make assumptions about how parents want to work.
The question of bias came up at an event I attended recently. Sometimes, it was stated, unconscious bias can be the result of a manager trying to be supportive. Sometimes women can end up sidelined after maternity leave, for instance, by line managers who think they have the best of intentions. They may have absorbed all the messages that working parents need more support when they return to work and they may assume that they want to have more time to focus on the family or to gradually increase their responsibilities.
They may be right, but people don’t all react in the same ways. While support and recognition of the challenges facing working parents is a good thing, assumptions are not. What seems benign can have a career-limiting impact or may end up demotivating a good employee, eventually leading to them leaving altogether. It is interesting that at one of our recent roundtables an employer said they had no problem retaining people after maternity leave, but women tended to leave around two years later. There could be many possible reasons for this – they may have another baby, they may find the ‘juggle’ too difficult, but perhaps too they may feel insufficiently challenged in the role they have. Perhaps they have taken a step back in the first few months back and they are ready for more responsibility, but feel stuck in a siding. Perhaps they are part time and have been overlooked for training or career progression initiatives. Our surveys shows this is often the case.
In the past, and to a significant extent this is still the case, many women who went back to work on reduced hours would have found it hard to find a new flexible role to move on to, meaning they had to remain in the job they were in.
Of course, many women may find it works for them to downscale work while their children are little and they still, mostly, retain prime childcare responsibilities. The important thing is that that should be their choice. They should not be pigeonholed into other people’s expectations and assumptions.
The only way to avoid this is for all channels of communication to be kept open and for managers to listen to what women are saying, not to make decisions for them. This whole transition to parenthood thing brings a whole gamut of emotions and thoughts, often conflicting and it takes a while to work your way through them. It should not be assumed because someone has had a baby that they want to step back or that, if they have stepped back, that they want to step back for ever. In the end, despite all the initiatives and programmes, it all comes back to honest two-way communication.