Maternity leave isn’t enough to retain new moms

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By Mita Mallick

A few weeks into my first maternity leave, a former colleague and friend called to check in on me and my infant son, Jay. It had been a rough birth physically and happened in Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which added to the stress. I welcomed her call, thankful to hear a familiar voice.

“How are you doing?” she gently asked me, as we swapped new mom stories and made plans to meet up soon. “Is everything OK jobwise? Are you still planning to return to work?”

“Oh yes,” I replied quickly, changing my son’s diaper as we spoke. “Why wouldn’t I?”

She was silent for a moment, then said, “A recruiter called me about your job, and it’s also posted online, so I thought you weren’t coming back. I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you that.”

I don’t remember what I said next. I don’t remember how the call ended. I do remember that my head was spinning. I finished feeding my son and put him down for a nap.

Why would my job be posted online when I was going back? Why hadn’t anyone told me?

I thought back to the period before I’d taken leave. When the doctor advised me to stop traveling to customer meetings in my third trimester, my bosses weren’t happy. When I stayed at the office until 11 p.m. to work on urgent requests at seven months pregnant, no one ever suggested that I order dinner.

When I wrapped up things a few days before my due date, management assured me that I would come back to my role. But now I didn’t trust them. I resigned toward the end of my maternity leave after finding another opportunity.

The lesson I drew from this was simple. Maternity leave is one thing. Support for new mothers is an entirely different issue.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 60 percent of organizations offer 12 weeks of maternity leave and 33 percent offer longer leaves to new mothers. Some organizations are also making policies more inclusive: Spotify, Etsy, Twitter and others offer paid parental leave, filling the void that exists in countries like the US, where no mandated paid parental leave exists.

But paid time off is not enough. Organizations need to create a broader ecosystem to support working mothers. Here are five questions to focus on as we look to retain, develop and promote them:

Who will take on her work?

When there’s no clear plan for transitioning responsibilities or the strategy is simply to throw work onto employees and colleagues, it can create a great deal of anxiety. A new mom might feel like she is burdening her team, while her peers might become resentful.

One solution is to reach out to former employees who know your organization well and could consult for a few months to cover the work. Another option is partnering with an organization like The Second Shift, which has created a marketplace to match companies with female experts who can help on certain projects or cover leaves. If you can’t bring in a consultant and need current team members to help, ensure they are compensated with a cash bonus or an increase in salary.

How will you assess her performance?

Sit down with people before they take leave and give them detailed feedback on their performance year-to-date versus their goals. If necessary, explain how the leave will affect any merit or bonus pay. If a formal review would have taken place while they’re out, promise to conduct one when they return.

If you are forced to rank team members on a “bell curve,” evaluate those on maternity leave based on their performance before they left. If you find that new parents are falling to the lower end of the curve, your organization needs to have an open and honest dialogue about the biases you’re bringing to the table.

What are her career aspirations?

Don’t assume that new mothers want to stay on the “mommy track.” Continue to ask about and understand their career aspirations, checking in as you would with any employee on how they want to grow in the organization. Come into those conversations with an open mind and listen carefully.

If you hear that the ambitions of an employee are unchanged, ensure that upon her return she is guaranteed the same role she had before leaving and include her in succession planning for key roles. Give her clear guidance on what it takes to get that next assignment or promotion, and ask her if she would like to be contacted during the leave about upcoming opportunities.

What other policies do you have to support new mothers?

Companies need a robust suite of policies to make motherhood work for new working mothers. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 81 percent of companies offer new mothers ramping back to work options after they return from leave. While some women will want options to help them ramp back to full-time work, others will want to explore alternative options. Offer a suite of possibilities including flexible working, part time or job-sharing opportunities for all individuals.

You may also want to ensure that your offices have a mother’s room, where women can pump milk comfortably and privately. Design rooms to include comfortable seating, a fridge, a sink and a microwave. Backup child care is another key offering, which many companies have added during the pandemic. Finally, tech companies including Facebook, Google and Salesforce, have also started to offer additional paid time off for caregivers.

How will you know

if you are successful?

What gets measured gets done. How do you know if you are retaining mothers? Track how many return from leave. Measure how long they stay out after their first child and any subsequent children. Ask your new working parents what more they want. Host roundtables and listening tours to ensure you are meeting their needs. Crowdsource ideas and co-create solutions to be a better place to work for employees with young children.

Patagonia is a great example of a company that focuses on data and has strong retention. It supports working mothers with policies such as on-site child care and an organizational culture that embraces employees’ families.

Senior leaders have to commit to creating an environment that is supportive of new parents, and particularly mothers, beyond paid leave. Only once they do, their employees will feel that they can build a long-term career—and a family—at your organization.

Mita Mallick is the head of inclusion, equity and impact at Carta.

Image credits: WWW.FREEPIK.COM



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