Should employers lean in more and earlier?

Helen Bryce questions how employers can lean in at an earlier stage to ensure women having children get the message they are valued in the workplace.

A recent survey by Slater & Gordon revealed that six in 10 women polled felt their career options were limited as soon as they announced that they were pregnant and nearly half said they were made to feel guilty for taking maternity leave.

I’d like to say I was surprised at the findings, shocked at the figures, but sadly from all the women I have spoken to on this subject it rings very true and the signs of discrimination can start very early.

The reaction you get when you tell your employer that you are pregnant and in the following months count for an awful lot. Is it one of genuine excitement and encouragement or do they fake it with a forced smile, the inward groan forcing its way out? Do they manage to get through the conversation without asking questions like “so when are you thinking of finishing?”

Talking to pregnant women recently, and in light of the fact I have had this very conversation myself for the third time only a few months ago, this started me thinking.

Regardless of whether you are an employer who has a good maternity leave policy, flexible working scheme or anything else post pregnancy, the tone is set from the very moment this conversation takes place. I’m not denying that all of the above is tremendously important, but what I am saying is that culturally if these policies and practises don’t play out in real conversations (after all people work for people) then employers are missing a trick.

Most employers know that a lack of engagement has an absolute correlation with productivity and loyalty amongst so many other things. Why would you want a disengaged employee with you for the next six to nine months, never mind returning again afterwards? You could essentially create a situation where your employee goes on ‘countdown’, doing the minimal required to see the next six months out.

This is imagining a worst case reaction and to be fair most women I know (particularly first-time parents) work even harder to try and ensure their worth is noted before going off on maternity leave.

Leaning in

But even if an employer has a reaction that is neither one thing nor the other, I haven’t heard of many employers who actively “lean in” during this period. It doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t take up much time, it doesn’t actually even take much effort to do. What a difference it would make if your employer:

– Actively encouraged you to be a part of projects or work even if they were going to be happening once you were on maternity leave and talked about this in terms of valuing your contribution

– Continued to work on your development plan, signed you up for training, challenged you with new opportunities

– Suggested that you work from home or actively looked together for ways to increase your wellbeing, especially towards the end of your pregnancy

– Supported you in finding a mentor or to get other support / advice

– Listened, empathised and challenged their own 'unconscious bias' in the comments they make

– Stopped to think, because ultimately we are all human and although clearly work needs to get done, for that moment, that short conversation, wouldn’t it feel amazing if they did genuinely share your news with the positivity it deserves?

Potentially for an employer you are their top talent (one of their best employees). What if instead of stating “For a short amount of time I will have other priorities then I plan to return to you and continue where I left off performing brilliantly”, you stated this. “For a short amount of time I will have other priorities, then I may well go to a competitor and make them lots of money instead. So you have 6 months to help me make that decision.” I think that spells it out a bit differently.

So I guess my call to employers is, lean in. Don’t underestimate the importance of engagement prior to maternity leave. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive, just utilising those basic people management skills of listening and empathy. Don’t miss out on six months where you can still be developing and supporting someone's ambition. If you saw potential and talent before it hasn’t miraculously disappeared. Don’t for a moment question whether someone should have a promotion just because they are pregnant – we all know it happens, even if not so blatantly. Aside from being illegal it also shows a narrow and short-term mindset. Because not only will you get your investment back before you know it, you will be in such a minority as a business that you are likely to get it back 10 times over!

So, I am eager to know, how was your conversation?

What do you think? Do employers lean in and what difference would it make if they did? 

*Helen Bryce runs the website, which provides support for parents going back to work after parental leave or a career break.  Email [email protected] to find out more.

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