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What are the top three barriers to progression for returning mums?

Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Parental Returners Expert


Despite progress in some areas – for example, new flexible working rules and the Protection from Redundancy Act – it’s clear that motherhood is still having a detrimental effect on women’s careers.



Women in Britain are being priced out of work and suffering from a growing gender pay gap due to a lack of affordable childcare, according to PwC.


Research from the University of Kent found that the motherhood penalty is greater now than 40 years ago, and that for higher-educated women, the gender pay gap has actually worsened since the 70s.


“Barriers to career progression for mothers with some post-school education have hardly shifted. The gap in pay between mothers and fathers looks very similar now as it did in the late 1970s. The story for Gen-Xers is the same for boomers and the millennials.” Dr Amanda Gosling, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Kent

Changes that make the greatest impact

The employers we work with know they need to put a strategy in place to develop and retain their valuable female talent after maternity. Otherwise what happens in their organisation will mirror what is playing out elsewhere – as that is the cultural norm.


These are the three key barriers to progression that progressive, inclusive employers are tackling right now:


1 – Line managers: make or break

Women want to return to work and continue their career pathways after maternity leave. Returners will retain – and exceed – pre-maternity levels of performance with the right support, and line managers are absolutely key here.


In our workshops, we hear many positive things about supportive, knowledgeable and flexible managers – they are described as ‘vital’ and ‘make or break’ to a successful return to work.


However, there is often too much variation in managers’ knowledge, experience and training. Some line managers don’t have much – if any – experience of working with pregnant women and don’t have the confidence to handle difficult conversations with tact and empathy.


Our Allyship Workshops will help your managers understand the lived experiences of working parents, leading to greater empathy, confidence and understanding. Message us to book your session.

2 – Stereotypes, biases and assumptions

We don’t need to look far to find examples of bias in recruitment. A survey of over 2,000 people by Applied revealed that 40% of female senior managers have been asked whether or not they have children, or plan to have them in future, during job interviews.


Workplace biases aren’t necessarily malicious and can be well-intentioned; for example, a manager might assume from their own experiences that a new mum will want to put her career on hold while she focuses on her family. However well-meaning, this still contributes to returners missing out on training and development opportunities and – ultimately – promotions.


Let’s arrange a call to discuss how maternity bias training can tackle out-dated stereotypes and biases in your workplace.

3 – KIT days - a lost opportunity?


A strong KIT process sets the tone for the transition back to work. It’s easy to get this right; a planned handover and reorientation, personal contact during parental leave and a strong framework to keep line managers on track.


However, KIT days aren’t always used effectively. One mum told us:


“Our KIT process was a nightmare. My line manager didn’t know how it worked, and ultimately both me and my employer missed out on a phased transition back to work and my KIT days were lost. It made me feel abandoned and unwanted in the run-up to my return to work.”


Getting it right: improved retention, gender parity and reduced pay gaps

When employers get these things right, they reap the benefits of improved retention and increased productivity. Working mums want to stay and progress to senior levels, leading to greater gender parity and reduced pay gaps.


Let’s start a conversation about how Returning Works Parental Allyship Workshops will help your company become the right cultural fit for working parents.

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