In this new age where agile and flexible working practices are no longer perceived as a novelty, and where a culture of assessing individual input and output to calculate merit is – quite rightly – being valued above presenteeism, the time is ripe for those who need to work around other commitments to make their return to the workplace, with mothers being a prime demographic. A gap in your working history does not necessarily equate with the deterioration of your value. New parents learn new skills: how to juggle, how to negotiate, how to time manage. So why does the stock of mothers seem to devalue dramatically whilst they are on a career break?
The whole attitude towards returning mothers needs to be seriously reconsidered. Employers accept that having a diverse melee of experience, talents and skills within their workforce makes for an innovative environment. There is no scope for workplaces to evolve if employers do not embrace the differences of their employees: different experiences, different perspectives and different backgrounds. Surely, then, this should extend to mothers too – despite the fact that they might need to work in a slightly different way.
Part of the problem are the negative assumptions and sweeping generalisations made about returning mothers: that they are unambitious, that they only want to work part time, that they will be too slow to get to grips with the way technology has moved on. But this is simply not the case. Imagine any other group being discriminated against en masse in this manner. It simply would not, and could not, happen. For many returning mothers, though, it does: a 2012 study showed that women returning to work are very often forced to into accepting lower-paid, part-time jobs.
Some industries are taking steps towards improvement: returnership programs as first introduced by investment banks are slowly becoming more and more popular. And statistics show that more women are returning to work. Between 2011 and 2013, 200,000 mothers from two parent families with dependent children returned to work, compared to just 185,000 between 1996 and 2011. Equally, recent legislation has dictated that all parents of children under the age of 17 are entitled to request flexible working (but whether this request will be accepted is an entirely different matter – and, indeed, not legislated for). So, we are moving in the right direction, but evidently there is still much to do.
Women returning to work naturally feel daunted – but is this partly (and paradoxically) due to the fact that everything out there tells them that they ought to feel daunted? Most returnership programmes are aimed at reinstilling lost confidence and getting women up to speed with the necessary skills they need to return to work. But why can’t the emphasis shift, at least in part, to one which empowers mothers, and shows them how they can use their new found skills to improve upon their previous experience – bettering themselves, rather than hauling themselves back up to their previous level. Why do we treat women as though their stock has devalued or, at the very best, remained stagnant for the years they have been out of work? The fact is that women are returning to the workplace with more life experience, a fresh perspective and a whole host of newly acquired skills: if anything, their stock should has risen.
So, how can employers get better at accommodating the needs of returning women?
- Hire them! Respect the decision of women to return to work (in many cases it’s not an easy one) and give them a chance to impress you.
- Accept that all circumstances are different – don’t assume that all working mothers want the same thing. Part time work might be great for some, but others may want to return to work full time. Never make assumptions.
- Think of flexible solutions. Do you really need this employee to do all of their work from the office, and in office hours?
- Make sure that your IT system allows for remote and flexible women.
- Lead by example. If you show a proactive attitude to employing returning mothers, and accommodating their needs, then your employees will follow suit in respecting their value.
By believing and investing in the skills of a returning mother, you will more than likely find yourself working with an exceptionally reliable, focused and motivated employee – and surely these qualities far outweigh those possessed by many employees who are able to (unproductively) keep their seat warm beyond office hours.