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Maternity & HE: top-line results and key themes

Written by Eloise Spearman | Client Services Manager

Returning Works® is partnering with Advance HE and Universities HR to investigate the impact of motherhood on women’s careers in the higher education sector. On 10th June, we shared key findings from our research at Advance HE’s Caring Responsibilities and Gender Equality in HE online conference. This blog highlights the key themes that have emerged, and will be followed by a full report later this year.

You can also download our presentation from the event:

Returning Works Advance HE presentation
Download PDF • 890KB

Lived Experiences: The Impact of Maternity on Career Pathways in Higher Education Survey

The Survey ran from 5 June to 31 July 2023, and received 172 responses from 58 institutions. 172 women completed the survey. Respondents included professional services and academic staff, with approximately 24% of respondents in academic roles.

44% of participants who completed the Survey felt their organization isn’t making fast enough progress in providing a supportive and inclusive environment for parental carers.

Respondents told us that their institutions are making strong progress in the following areas:

  • Family friendly policies such as flexible working

  • Active parent network in place

  • Organisational awareness of the impact of caring duties

The most common barriers to participation were:

  • Lack of awareness of the impact of motherhood on women’s careers

  • Culture/working environment

  • Being out of the workplace due to maternity leave

  • Limited access to examples of best practice in the sector

Areas where institutions need more support in creating inclusive workplaces for parental carers:

  • Understanding the issues/lived experiences of expectant and returning parents

  • Creating fair and accessible developmental pathways

  • Creating cultural change

  • Awareness of best practice

Follow-up interviews

We conducted 23 30-minute interviews via Zoom during the summer and autumn of 2023. Women from a variety of job roles took part in the interviews, with professional services and academic staff both well represented. We will be including these case studies and details from our conversations in the full report; in the meantime, download our presentation to read quotes from these interviews.

Key Challenges

Challenge 1: Strategic Approach

What’s going well: institutions have policies such as enhanced maternity pay and flexible working in place. Some encourage meetings to take place in core hours so people can work around school and nursery drop offs – this is progress.

What’s not going well: There is rarely a sense of senior leadership buy-in with little evidence of senior leaders taking a strategic approach where champion parental inclusion or communicate why there is a ‘business case’.

As a consequence, organisations find it difficult to know how to progress and they are not given access to specialist support: it is "hard to find a practitioner guide".

Challenge 2: Networks

What’s Going Well: Parental and Carer Networks are often in place and can be a huge source of support to parents.

What’s Not Going Well: The networks are not always very active. Feedback mechanisms are not usually in place for senior leaders to be listening and assisting the networks. Networks often aren’t adequately funded or resourced.

For example, parental mentoring programmes often depend on asking people who are time poor, due to their own parental caring responsibilities, to support new parents.

Challenge 3: Manager Allyship

What’s going well: Where managers and teams understand the impact of taking extending parental leave and caring responsibilities on staff, employees are more likely to report successfully re-engaging after parental leave and feeling more positive about their institutions, as well as being able to continue on their career trajectories.

What’s not going well: There is little evidence of institution-wide structural frameworks for parental support, with managers not receiving training in helping employees through the return to work and maintaining their career progression.

This also creates potential for maternity bias and discrimination, which can feed into a restriction of developmental opportunities. Support is too dependent on individual managers.

Challenge 4: Barriers to career development

What’s Going Well: Funding schemes offered by some institutions to help particularly academic returning parents and carers continue their research.

What’s Not Going Well: There is little evidence that institutions are tracking the career trajectories of returning mums to monitor their career progression in order to identify the systemic barriers that survey respondents reported.

While people return to work due to enhanced policies, particularly access to flexible working, they mention barriers to being able to access representation and progression.

Preliminary recommendations

Manager Support & Allyship

  • Managers’ checklist

  • Parental Allyship training for managers (webinars, workshops or short videos)

Strengthening Networks

  • Adequately funded and resourced networks, with staff given time to attend

Improving Support for Returners

  • Parental leave comms checklist

  • Return to Work induction plans

  • Coaching for returning parents

Further information

If you'd like to discuss any of the themes raised in this research, or explore how your institution can better support returning parents, please get in touch and we can set up a quick call.


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