By Helen Tinnelly, founder of the training and development company Propelelo
Covid-19 has changed the world of work forever, prompting a fundamental shift in how, where, when and why people work.
For many employees, the ‘why’ of their work has also raised profound questions about their work-life balance, satisfaction and remuneration, as well as encouraging a flight to greener pastures.
This has, in turn, heralded a Great Resignation as thousands of workers who bided their time during the uncertainty of the pandemic decide that now is the moment to change jobs. With the number of job vacancies hitting a record high, it’s a jobseeker’s market, and many employers are being forced to pull out all the stops to attract recruits.
Yet while this game of Musical Chairs plays out, one group has been left behind again – mothers.
Feeling out of sight and out of mind
As Covid restrictions have impacted school opening hours and the availability of childcare, mothers who are primary caregivers have been disproportionately affected. Research suggests women did 173 additional hours of unpaid childcare during the pandemic, compared to 59 hours for men. In addition, the upheaval around furlough schemes and work restructuring mean that women on maternity leave are even more likely to feel out of sight and out of mind than before.
With no standardised path back to working life as the world adjusts to the new normal, many new mothers are left holding the baby – both literally and in terms of their careers.
The volatility in the jobs market is unlikely to ease the existing brain drain of new mothers. With nearly one in five professional women (17%) leaving employment within five years of having a child, this would be a waste of experience and talent at any time. But in the current environment of skill shortages, it’s little short of criminal.
Hitting the bottom line
The business case for advancing women leaders is compelling. In addition to doubling a company’s talent pool, there is clear evidence that recruiting women increases financial performance. A study of Fortune 500 companies has shown that those with higher representation of women on boards financially outperform those with the fewest female members, while gender-diverse business units have higher average revenue than less diverse units.
Firms that employ large percentages of female staff are associated with higher levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement for all workers, regardless of their gender. Diverse working environments also foster greater innovation and make it easier to attract new employees.
Needless to say an outflow of skilled, experienced women also directly affects the corporate bottom line as well. The price of replacing an employee can be 50%-200% of their salary when you factor in processes like recruitment, onboarding and training of new staff. Add to that the loss of knowledge and experience when a skilled worker leaves, as well as the impact on team projects and morale, and there are clear costs to bear. We estimate that for a 5000 FTE company, the loss of these mothers can work out in the region of £200k a year.
The working mother fallacy
Yet at a time when staff retention should be an increasing priority, pay statistics show that new mothers, in particular, are disincentivised from returning to work. A poisonous false assumption still pervades through many offices that a working mother’s heart is not fully in the business, a fallacy barely ever applied to working fathers.
Research conducted last year by the salary comparison company Payscale found that women performing the same role as men earn 7% less on average when coming back after an extended absence such as maternity leave. This pay gap impact is more acute between the ages of 30-44, a career period when many men are promoted into management positions while women either don’t return or come back in a reduced capacity.
An exodus of mothers disadvantages companies that should be striving to close gender pay gaps and boost levels of representation and diversity in boardrooms that are already lacking their fair share of female senior leaders. The UK Government’s Gender Pay Gap Bot, which tweeted the (in some cases startling) gender gap of all organisations posting in support of International Women’s Day this month, showed the gulf between words and action in this area. This leak in the pipeline drains the female talent pool at the middle management level causing issues with female representation in senior management.
The tragedy is that so many workplace departures can be avoided. A pre-pandemic poll by the management consultancy Gallup found that more than half of employees (52%) who left their jobs said an intervention by their manager or organisation in the months leading up to their exit could have changed their mind.
Instead of allowing this experienced talent pool to ebb away, employers should recognise that bringing working mothers back into the fold as smoothly as possible will provide multiple benefits, both now and in the future.
What is the solution?
Businesses need to take a three-pronged approach to ensure women feel encouraged and empowered to return to their careers following maternity leave.
First, they must assist with the provision of affordable childcare. Too often mothers find the cost-benefit of going back to work just isn’t there as wages are swallowed up by nursery or childminder fees. This has to be addressed by parental leave policies and support aimed at both mothers and fathers.
Second, it is crucial that firms recognise the importance of — and thoroughly explore — flexible working options for women returning from maternity leave, including broader shared leave policies. The pandemic has made many employers more open to hybrid working and compressed hours, but they need to be equally willing to create suitable environments for working mothers and establish clear boundaries between work and personal time.
Finally, acknowledging that a long absence from their job can leave working mothers feeling ‘out of the loop’, potentially sapping their confidence and enthusiasm for coming back, organisations must put more emphasis — and resource — into training and development. This will help women hit the ground running on their return and also deliver an immediate benefit to the business as they fit seamlessly back into their role and wider team. Employers should also provide access to support networks, where women can share stories and be inspired by female role models.
By taking these positive steps, businesses will help break a cycle that allows far too many women to slip out of the working world, promote gender equality and be rewarded with happier and more loyal employees. That is the very definition of ROI.