On Mothers Returning to Work
As part of our series on understanding the issues relating to women re-entering the workforce after having children, this article focuses on the impact of time out of the workforce on the trajectory of a career.
There are lots of reasons that people leave the workforce for shorter or longer periods, however for women it is overwhelmingly about having children, and more specifically about being away from work just prior to, and for a shorter or longer period immediately after child birth. This is an important time for new mothers, and their recent arrival(s), and we know that there are necessary tradeoffs in career versus nurturing to get through.
So what about the career implications of being away from the workforce for a period of time? What happens when someone else has been in your role, managing the relationships that took you years to build? And how do you feel when you hear your replacement is popular with everyone and has done a great job. Even the environment has changed and you weren't away that long!
You used to have your own place to put your stuff, and your own desk. Now the company has a hot desk policy; but you’ve been out in the cold and have barely a clue what hot means, just that you don't have your own space any more.
And that's not all that has changes. So many aspects of a work environment can change that being away for six months, let alone a year or two from your role can feel like a lifetime. Along with all the difficult feelings of leaving your child in someone else’s care, you feel you’ve got to fit back quickly into your role. But it's not the one you left.
There is a growing body of research internationally on the impacts of children on careers. For instance, almost all professions have an unswerving focus on bringing through their best and brightest into more senior roles. But women are under-represented in these senior roles and time out of the career trajectory is often the reason. Men are still hugely under-represented in the at home parenting role, although this is changing, but still dominate senior roles. They may not be a better or worse choice for a role in terms of intellect, training or ability to power through the work, but they are usually able to be at work.
Unfortunately it's not just the time out for having a child that impacts most on women. Research into sick leave from multiple western economies shows that women take up to 40% more sick leave days over their career than men do. See this link. And UK research in 2011 and 2014 indicates that a primary reason is to look after their children. So how easy it is for senior managers to question your commitment when as a mother, you are the one most likely to have to leave work early if your child is ill.
This article from the Association of Accounting Technicians in the UK www.aat.org.uk/news/article/women-impact-children-on-career illustrates some of the current concerns that young professional women are voicing. Almost 50% are so worried about the damage having children is likely to have on their career that they are wondering if they should remain childless. These are not idle or inconsequential thoughts.
We know that having children has an impact on women’s careers, but it’s not the same for everyone. Some companies deal with this better than others. And some women are more fortunate than others in the support that they are likely to have around them.
If you are an ambitious young woman facing possible restrictions in your career from time out of the workforce we have found only three options that seem to offer reasonable future prospects:
- Join an industry and/or a company where there are already women who have had similar experiences and come through into senior roles. In most cases they have sacrificed a lot to get there, but inevitably they have changed the culture of their organisations and you will be in a much better position to take advantage of the extraordinary efforts these women have made. Remember to be grateful.
- Lobby your current organisation and bring awareness of the difficulties that you have in sustaining an expected career trajectory because of your choice to have children, whilst highlighting the skills you have, and will retain on your return. You may end up being one of the extraordinary women mentioned above.
- Build a support structure from amongst your female family members, or if that isn't possible, draft in someone to be the care-giver and home-maker. We discussed in an earlier article all the options for childcare arrangements and there are plenty of possible solutions, however in most cases career women need more support than that offered by childcare centres if they are to advance to senior roles.
There are other options, such as starting and building your own company, or getting your partner to be a "house husband", or placing your child into care at an early age. There are success stories for all these but they are either out of reach, or just not what seems right for many young women.
We try hard at Alpha to make it possible for our people to look at the options that make sense to them, and have been reasonably successful in supporting our internal staff to continue their careers post baby. But we acknowledge it's not easy, and something that other organisations just can't do, as some of our temps working in those organisations remind us.
We welcome comment on the impact having children has had on your career and what steps you might have taken to cope with these.