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Making work work for mothers

With certain protections now being likely to protect pregnant employees, those on maternity leave and those returning from leave for longer in certain redundancy situations, how can employers mitigate their risks?

Employees who are pregnant, who are on (and who are returning from) maternity leave have the legal right not to be treated less favourably or discriminated against by their employer under both the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 and the Equality Act 2010.

However, the stats are stark…

In a survey of more than 1,000 women run by MMB Magazine in 2018:

  • 72 per cent of women surveyed worked at management level or above, and less than a fifth (18 per cent) of those felt happy and confident about returning to work
  • more than a third (37 per cent) felt so unsupported and isolated on their return they considered handing in their notice
  • nine in 10 (90 per cent) were not offered any formal support through a returner programme

The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported (in 2018: Is Britain Fairer?) that 77 per cent of mothers had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or on returning to work.

Furthermore, in a survey in 2019 by the number of female workers seeking part-time work, at all levels of the company, was found to be increasing rapidly, but that the number of available opportunities was failing to increase at the same rate. From a survey of over 2000 women, nearly one in five (18 per cent) UK working mothers said they had been forced to leave their jobs because a flexible working request has been turned down. Around 12 per cent said their employer did not seem to consider their request at all, and over a quarter (27 per cent) said the reason given for turning down the request was not one which is allowable under flexible working legislation. A further 41 per cent on maternity leave said the refusal of flexible working would mean they might not return to their job, while 50 per cent said they had not even discussed flexible working before going on maternity leave. Over half (60 per cent) of women had admitted to changing jobs after maternity leave.

Many employers may believe that the above stats do not reflect their businesses but even the good employers who value diversity and welcome mothers back to work could improve how they treat women on maternity leave and on their return. Here are our top recommendations to not only mitigate risk but to engender good feeling - and increase retention of the returning mother population!

  1. Inform - most employers will agree with the woman before she goes on maternity leave how much contact she wants to maintain with the workplace. However, managers and HR should ensure that women in managerial or other senior positions are separately notified of any key changes, proposed new joiners to their teams (before any adverts are placed!), strategic plans or significant staffing changes. Out of sight should not mean out of mind especially where the impact of any changes would affect the woman on her return.

  2. Induct - treat returners as new starters (regardless of whether they have been off work for six weeks, six months or over a year). Things change and a refresher course or training in certain systems or processes may be beneficial, especially when all that has been occupying the mother’s mind in the previous few months is feeding, changing and caring for a helpless little being. It can also take some time for the returner to get fully into work mode so ease them in gradually. 

  3. Involve - any ongoing training opportunities should continue to be offered to the woman on leave. Extend invitations to work socials, client entertaining, charity events, etc.  Don’t assume a woman on maternity leave doesn’t want to get involved because they’re not physically at work.

  4. Introduce - again, treat the women like a new starter. Tell colleagues in advance that their colleague is returning on x date and invite them to pop by (call/email/video call) to say hello. The new kid in class shouldn’t have to go around to everyone to make that awkward hello or introduction.

  5. (re)Integrate - an action plan and timeline should be agreed to reintroduce the returner to customers, clients, suppliers, etc. who they dealt with before. For example: ‘We’re delighted to welcome Sam Smith back from maternity leave. Sam will return to being your primary point of contact.’ Any exceptions need to be specifically and objectively addressed with appropriate remedial steps (e.g. allocating or introducing a replacement account).

  6. Innovate - (can you tell that I’m getting creative with the words beginning with ‘I’?...) embrace new ways of working. COVID has taught us a great deal about how we work and how we want to work in the future. A nine-to-five in the office routine can not only be inefficient but doesn’t accord with the work / life balance many employees are now striving for. Go with it - you will get far more value out of the returner as they are more likely to be engaged, happy and therefore, likely to stay with you longer. In addition, the woman could claim indirect sex discrimination if a request for part-time or home working is rejected without an underlying objective business case.

  7. Instruct - depending on the seniority of the returning employee, consider appointing an executive coach or instructor to prepare for and support the return to work and reintegration.

  8. Informal support - if the above is too formal or not necessary, or even in addition to coaching, appoint a mentor / buddy. Someone who has been through it, knows the struggles and can lend a sympathetic ear as well as share their learnings.

  9. Incentives - pay reviews and bonuses (the latter potentially pro-rated for time spent at work and in the two-week period immediately after childbirth) should be awarded in line with other colleagues. The employee does not simply skip a year because they have been absent on maternity leave.

  10. Invigorate - (ok I’ll admit I had nine tips and had to think of a tenth to get an even number but hear me out) professional returning mothers (in particular) may want to be mentally stimulated and challenged (motherhood is a wonderfully privileged role but it does not test the grey matter to a great degree). Don’t assume that they’re just back at work as a hobby (or rest) or that they have to return for financial reasons. Tap into their organised, efficient, pragmatic and problem-solving skills set (all learnt or improved upon since having their baby!) and your organisation will reap the benefits.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.


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