While women are still underrepresented at the senior levels of business, the issue is at least the subject of extensive research. However, this research often overlooks key events in women’s working lives, such as the return to work after maternity leave.
This time is a critical transition for many women. It affects how they see themselves as professionals and how they feel about their place in a business. In this project, Dublin City University researchers looked at how women’s professional relationships with their line managers both develop, and influence experiences during this time.
The icon on this article reflects the research's contribution to UN Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality. The Sustainable Development Goals are 17 objectives designed by the United Nations to serve as a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet.
This paper is the latest in a series of studies by the team in this area. Their 2018 industrial report highlighted these issues around maternity leave as a contributing factor in companies’ failure to retain talented employees. The report condensed a huge study, involving over 300 women, into a practical series of best practices for businesses.
This report highlighted the importance of this time of transition as an important opportunity for organisations and their managers to signal their commitment to women’s careers. With these findings in mind, the latest research is a ‘deep dive’ focusing on maternity leave from the perspective of employees and their line managers.
The study is based on in-depth interviews with 27 women returning to their jobs across industries including finance, technology and healthcare. The team conducted corresponding interviews with their line managers.
A key insight emerging from these interviews were the meaningful differences in how people thought about maternity leave. In some cases, women and their managers saw the time as a huge disruption. It was viewed as an interruption to working life that required major effort and adjustment from both sides to accommodate.
In other instances, the women and their managers viewed maternity leave as a temporary pause in a longer term career with the business.
These short term versus longer term perspectives led to vastly different outcomes for women returning to work. Employers that took the long term perspective were more likely to weigh the past and future contributions of women to the business. They were less likely to give into common biases linking motherhood with a lack of commitment to work.
In contrast where a shorter term perspective was taken, women often felt their past contributions had been forgotten. They then had to prove their commitment and ability all over again.
Emphasis on experience
The interviews offered direct insight into a range of these experiences: one employee reported losing clients they had been promised they would work with on their return. Others who felt discouraged by negative bias towards new mothers. One manager reflected that workplaces can’t be truly inclusive without acknowledging employees’ changing priorities, suggesting that in many cases traditional nine-to-five working hours are perhaps no longer realistic.
For a wide range of reasons, some interviewees felt that their careers had been halted following their return. This study provides real insight into the serious emotional and professional impact on these individuals. The study has placed the lived experience of women at its core.
Where does this leave employees and their line managers? The key takeaway for companies is the importance of open and honest communication between employees and line managers. It is important to open up lines of communication both before and after maternity leave.
Read the full paper and citation here: I Left Venus and Came Back to Mars: Temporal Focus Congruence in Dyadic Relationships Following Maternity Leave
2018 original paper: Re-Engaging Talent Post- Maternity Leave: Enablers and Barriers to Positive Reintegration
Yseult Freeney is a Professor in DCU Business School
Dr Lisa Van der Werff is an Associate Professor at DCU Business School