New mums who keep in touch with their workplace while on maternity leave are more hireable and less likely to experience unconscious bias, research shows.
#newbornlife is often filled with broken sleep, juggling regular feeding and naps and copious amounts of washing, meaning work can often be the last thing on a mother’s mind, but research has found that staying connected to work has significant career benefits, particularly if taking a longer maternity leave period.
Researchers from Canada and Australia surveyed 558 Canadian employees and asked them to review a job application for a marketing manager role where the candidate had taken a year of maternity leave.
Survey participants were randomly presented with one of four scenarios:
- the would-be marketing manager had used a keeping in touch program while on maternity leave
- the keeping in touch program existed but the would-be marketing manager hadn’t used it while on maternity leave
- there was no information about whether the keeping in touch program had been used while on maternity leave
- there was no reference to a keeping in touch program
Agency perceptions, job commitment and hireability were the highest when the candidate had used the keeping in touch program while on maternity leave.
While economists have looked at maternity leave length and career impact, the study, published in the prestigious Journal of Applied Psychology, was the first of its kind to investigate why women often experienced penalties after taking a longer maternity leave, and strategies to overcome this.
The research found that these women were often perceived as being less career-orientated and assertive and, therefore, less committed to their job and less attractive to hire.
RMIT School of Management lecturer and paper co-author Dr Raymond Trau is an expert in workplace diversity.
Dr Trau said the research reinforced a catch 22 situation women often faced when taking maternity leave. That is, spending time with their baby versus pursuing their career.
“When a woman takes a longer period of maternity leave, such as a year off work, they’re often perceived as caring and nurturing, but less ambitious and driven, whereas, when a woman takes one month off they’re often perceived as ambitious, assertive, driven and committed to their career,” Dr Trau said.
“Women who take these longer periods of maternity leave can often be penalised. The obvious forms of penalty are not being hired and not being promoted. The less obvious form is not having the opportunity to advance their career through training and development.
“Our findings show women are more hireable and perceived as more committed if they have a shorter period of time off.”
One solution to overcome perceptions could be keeping in touch programs. Platforms such as Grace Papers advocate for keeping in touch as a key strategy to navigate career and care.
Grace Papers is an online platform that empowers parents to define their professional vision, understand their entitlements, identify bias, transition in and out of the workforce and negotiate flexibility.
Many companies offer paid parental leave, while eligible Australian employees who are the primary carer of a newborn or adopted child can also get up to 18 weeks’ paid parental leave at the minimum wage ($695 a week before tax) from the Federal Government.
There’s little awareness eligible Australian parents can access up to 10 paid keeping in touch days for attending conferences, training and planning days while on unpaid parental leave.
Dr Trau said women could use keeping in touch programs as an image management strategy to minimise bias from colleagues, managers and employers.
“There’s often all kinds of biases – sub conscious and unconscious – towards women who have longer maternity leave, and keeping in touch programs can help minimise them. These biases may come from people directly impacted by a woman going on maternity leave,” he said.
“We found the woman who participated in a keeping in touch program in the research scenario was perceived as more hireable because she was engaged with her work and committed to her career, even though she wasn’t currently working.”
Melbourne Water business analyst Emma Sodamaco said being part of a keeping in touch program helped her to feel connected to what was going on at work while on maternity leave.
“The program also gave me access to a coach and we worked together to develop a plan that made the transition back to work really smooth,” she said.
“Working with the coach gave me a chance to re-connect with my career goals and talk through how to balance my work life with being a new mum.”
Grace Papers CEO and founder Prue Gilbert said keeping in touch programs informed, guided and empowered new mums to stay connected to their workplaces over the short term, and, when coupled with professional development support, kept them engaged with their careers over the longer-term.
“The research also highlights the unconscious biases women are still expected to challenge to keep their careers on track, and why it is imperative that employers consider the systemic changes required to support managers and peers to overcome these biases,” Gilbert said.
“Smart employers, for example, integrate keeping in touch into a broader parental leave program that equips staff and managers alike with education, communication strategies and tools to transition in and out of work, and address systemic biases like assuming a woman has lost her ambition because she is taking 12 months of parental leave.
“But the game changer is combining self-led professional development support with keeping in touch strategies.
"When women can turn up to a return to work meeting with their employer and feel like they are equipped with the clarity about their career trajectory, the flexibility that will enable them to realise their potential, and the knowledge their contribution makes to their workplace, we level the playing field.
"It is no longer about working mums asking if their bosses will let them work part-time.”
According to Gilbert, acceptance of parental leave and workplace flexibility by people leaders as a critical talent retention lever, is an integral part of the keeping in touch program.
“When people leaders are proactively reaching out to their team members to check in on their well-being, to consult with them about applying for a promotion, or to let them know about a change in structure, it makes the transition back to work far less daunting," she said.
"It reminds them that they have not been invisible.”
Melbourne Water General Manager People and Capability Linda Heron said the organisation recognised working parents played a juggling act and had partnered with Grace Papers to increase the support it offered employees during the parental leave journey.
She said, as a result, Melbourne Water continued to have a high rate of return and retention of employees 12 months post-parental leave.
“The keeping in touch program is helping our employees on parental leave stay connected with Melbourne Water and we had a large group of staff on leave visit the office earlier this year to hear an update about what has been happening in the organisation,” Heron said.
Story: Amelia Harris