With a recent global report conducted by PwC finding that 42% of women fear the impact having a child would have on their careers, it’s clear that in 2019 many women still feel they must compromise their career to start a family.
As International Women’s Day approaches, we asked three directors from our business to share their experiences as working parents and explain how employers can stop career breaks becoming career breakers and implement working practices that enable parents to thrive.
Establish clear communication
Often employers focus on supporting women upon their return to work but Tiffany Wong, director for Walters People Hong Kong, thinks it’s important that managers ensure prospective parents are given clear guidance on what to expect while they’re on leave as well as when they return. “I think it’s natural to feel insecure prior to taking maternity leave and not knowing what the expectations are from your employer can really compound that feeling,” says Tiffany.
Sindy Ward, associate director for Robert Walters New Zealand, recommends that women set up a clear communications plan with their manager prior to going on maternity leave to set expectations. “Managers should recognise that not everyone is the same – some women may prefer to limit contact with their employer during their leave, while others will welcome regular communication. Offering parents the opportunity to be open about what works best for them will enable managers to provide the right level of support from the outset,” says Sindy.
While Lucy Bisset, director for Robert Walters UK, advocates ‘keeping in touch’ days as a means to still feel connected: “I found my ‘keeping in touch’ days really valuable as they made me feel that I was still part of the business. I’ve always been on the judging panel for our Manchester Business Awards and I really appreciated being able to continue that role while on maternity leave as it gave me some continuity.”
Create a culture of support
Recognising parental leave as a deeply personal and unique experience is instrumental to supporting parents returning to work. “It’s important that women don’t put too much pressure on themselves in terms of how much time they should or shouldn’t have off,” advises Lucy.
Sindy agrees, “It’s easy to worry about other people’s judgements, but the best thing working women can do is to focus on what works best for them and their family.” Workplace cultures that position parental leave as a brief interlude in a long-term career, rather than a disruption can help ease the pressure on parents to return to work. As Tiffany’s experience reveals, small gestures can have a significant impact: “I took the decision to extend my maternity leave beyond the mandatory period and my manager responded by organising a welcome lunch just ahead of my return. For me, it was a clear signal that the business supported my decision and I wouldn’t be penalised for taking the extra time.”
While policies such as phased returns can ease the transition back into work, Sindy is keen to highlight that working parents require ongoing support: “The reality is that it’s impossible to achieve the perfect balance all the time - children grow up and your family expands, and with that comes new challenges. As parents, we need to learn to be ok with that, and as managers, we need to provide the flexibility required by parents to balance work commitments with family life.”
Lucy agrees, “Becoming a working parent had a significant impact on my efficiency and time management. When you have to make the nursery pick-up at a certain time, you quickly learn to focus your energy on tasks that deliver value. However, sometimes things happen beyond your control and businesses have to recognise that performance over presence is a far more accurate scale for measuring value.”
For Lucy, it’s important that business leaders advocate working cultures that promote family-friendly values: “When I was younger, the message from my parent’s generation was very much that it was one or the other – you couldn’t have a family as well as be a successful business woman, which really didn’t offer much to aspire to.” She continues, “As a leader, I feel strongly that I should be a role model for my team to show that it is possible to have a family and a successful career whether you’re a woman or a man.”
Tiffany supports Lucy’s argument: “It’s important that leaders empathise with the needs of working parents. Simple things such as being conscious of people needing to make childcare pick-ups when organising work socials can really help to stop parents feeling excluded.”
Avoid making assumptions
It’s also important for managers to not make assumptions about a new parent’s career ambitions. All three of the women we interviewed felt that taking a career break enabled them to review their careers with a fresh perspective and energy. “Taking a career break gave me clarity on exactly what I wanted to achieve in my career,” says Tiffany. Adding, “In fact, soon after I returned to work, I asked my manager about my career path in the company. This discussion enabled me to set clear goals to work towards in order to achieve my ambition, and I have since received two promotions.”
However, Tiffany acknowledges that returning to work after an extended career break can be a challenge. “Whilst attitudes are changing, there are still employers out there that believe a career break indicates a lack of commitment. It’s important not to be deterred or ashamed of your career break – be proud and keep looking until you find an employer who recognises your value.”
Sindy agrees that it’s important that women are vocal about their ambitions. She advises, “Ultimately, you’re in control of your own destiny and the onus is on you to put yourself forward for opportunities. It’s not always easy, but if you believe in yourself, it makes it a lot easier for others to believe in you too.”