According to the US Department of Labor, there are over 74 million women in the civilian labor force. 75 percent of mothers with children under age 18 work full time and the proportion of women with college degrees in the labor force has almost quadrupled since 1970. As we enter a world where every company is a tech company and the demand for engineers continues to rise, the focus on including technical women in the workforce is accelerating. However, despite the presence and prevalence of these women in the workforce, the balance between family and work continues to be a struggle.
“Each time I returned from maternity leave the transition was very hard for me. But each time I felt lucky because a senior woman close to me stepped in to observe that I was struggling in the transition back to work, and took concrete steps to welcome me back and make adjustments that allowed me to successfully be both a new mom and a happy, productive employee.”
But women shouldn’t have to be ‘lucky’ to have the support they need to return. 56 percent of women leave their organizations at the mid-level point in their careers, after approximately ten years, vs 22 percent of men.* Returning from maternity leave is a key point at which employees struggle. Lack of a supportive team and environment is one of the key reasons women returning from maternity leave ultimately decide to leave their organizations. And when women leave a company, they do not usually return to that company.
*(Hewlett et al. (2008) The Athena factor: Reversing the hidden brain drain in science, engineering and technology. Harvard Business Review.)
To help address these challenges and in an effort to support and retain technical women, companies can create programs to help “re-onboard” technical women who have been out of the workforce for a period of time. These programs have gone by various names – returnity, returnships, back to work, etc. – but the principles are the same – helping companies to build an on-ramp for moms returning to the workforce. The bottom line is about talent retention at a critical career inflection point for women.
These programs aim to support new moms returning from maternity leave, through community-building and providing education and support by experienced moms on topics specific to moms returning to the workplace – from pumping at work to dealing with increased time pressures. They also offer 1:1 pairing with a mentor who’s been through the experience of having a baby and returning to the company.
For these women, the very definition of ‘normal’ has completely changed both on the home front and at work,. and certain things can often seem ‘off-limits’ to discuss with a manager. Just as the tech industry does not operate under set hours, there are no set hours for the job as a ‘mom;’ it’s all hours. Everything is new, so this is change on a massive scale for these women.
What this means for participants
Enabling women to be both happy moms and productive employees is the ultimate goal of these programs and providing women with a foundation and support system to transition back into the workplace is critical. We need to set women up for a successful ‘reentry’ into their roles, their teams, their careers.
Women have fewer hours that they can spend physically at work, and yet they now have more demands of their time. And it’s hard. And so, these programs aim to bridge the gap between this feeling of impossibility by providing tools, tips and tricks, and support, to make this doable. This forum helps provide women with strategies for prioritization of their ‘new normal.’
“Just knowing that there were others who were going through the same transition as me, helped immensely.”
You can’t do this alone! And you shouldn’t have to. Just like in a traditional work project where you can’t do it all yourself, this is no different. It’s a team effort. A team mindset and culture, and a company’s responsibility – and in the company’s best interest.
Participants see women supporting each other through these programs. They see women validate their desires to have both a career and a family, and secondly, that it is a reality to do so.
“I got back from maternity leave and I felt almost immediately that I needed to quit. I looked around at my team and all I could see was guys with stay-at-home wives and it seemed ridiculous to try to juggle my new life and my previous role. But through Returnity, I met so many strong, inspiring women who showed me how they were doing it and gave me advice for making it work for me. It still doesn’t feel easy, but it feels possible now in a way that it previously felt impossible.”
Call to Action for HR Professionals
The reality is that after childbirth, women can expect 24 percent decreased income, whereas men see a 6 percent pay boost after having children.*
*Budig, Michelle (2014). The Fatherhood Bonus and The Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay. Third Way.
The second a woman sets foot into her workplace after maternity leave, she’s committed. She’s back. These women are laser focused on wanting to have impact and are making conscious choices of where to spend their time. And they need and deserve support. This is a critical and pivotal timeframe. It’s not just about recruiting, it’s about retaining and advancing qualified women.
So, what can you do?
- Educate managers
- What to do before leave – checklist & timeline
- Outline and agree upon a ‘keeping in touch’ touch strategy for the period of leave.
- Discuss prioritization and delegation of project work for the period of leave, and upon return.
- Workload expectations.
- Flexible schedules.
- Mentorship opportunities post-leave.
- And most importantly, review together the policies in place regarding evaluation of rewards while the individual is on leave.
- Educate employees who will be taking leave
- Outline benefits specific to the needs of new parents.
- Outline options for flexible work arrangements.
- Provide examples of transition plans.
- Pre-leave checklist.
- Guidelines for navigating conversations with a manager.
- Clear leave guidance and policies.
- Provide clear guidance regarding the process for evaluation of rewards while on leave.
- Evangelize inclusive work environment practices
- Account for time and location when scheduling meetings.
- Be transparent with goals and materials, in advance of meetings.
- Take shared notes during meetings.
The tech industry is inherently competitive and suffers from a shortage of technical talent as every company becomes a tech company. We know the pipeline of attracting women to STEM is a huge focus for many industry leaders. And so, retaining these women who’ve committed to this field during a critical time for them is truly thought leadership.