Ruth Moody
March 14, 2023

How can senior leaders make it possible for women to come back to work and still be brilliant?

“Women are never the same when they come back to work after having a baby”. It may not be said aloud anymore, but it’s often one of the first thoughts that people have when they’re facing one of their female employees going off on maternity leave. It’s true. Women aren’t the same – they are no longer a professional working woman able to focus entirely on their work, they are also a mother driven to love, care for and protect their child. But these two states really can co-exist. Not by chance but by design.

Women’s brains do change after childbirth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

So, what does the evidence tell us?  Research conducted to study the changing anatomy of the brain suggests that when women are pregnant or post-partum, they experience shrinkage of the areas of ‘grey matter’ in their brain (Science.org, 2016).  In particular the grey matter shrinks in areas involved in processing and responding to social signals – our ability to read and interpret others’ intent. These changes allow women to ‘specialise’ or become more efficient in areas that allow them to care specifically for their child, for example, picking up on their child’s signals or detecting threat.  Additionally, the Hippocampus shrinks – the area of the brain associated with memory.

Fast forward two years and the hippocampus has returned to its normal size whereas grey matter loss has been retained.  So does this matter? Not necessarily. Grey matter loss is also associated with a maturing or specialising of the brain – where neural networks are fine-tuned, or the brain becomes more efficient.  So perhaps this process is actually making the mother’s brain more effective?

Women hone their skills as the parent most often carrying the invisible load

Certainly, with more to juggle and to focus on, many women claim that they are far more productive once the initial ‘baby brain’ has worn off.  Holding multiple priorities and anticipating needs, juggling schedules and demands, planning and monitoring options, decision making, doing, thinking – after all it is widely acknowledged that in typical families, the mental burden of parenthood sits with the mother (BBC, 2021). That said, this ‘invisible work’ that women do can have a detrimental impact – tiredness, low mood, stress, unhappiness. 

Motherhood makes minds sharper

New Scientist (2016) reports that motherhood makes minds sharper and that it primes brains for empathy, reasoning and judgement. So, if this is the case, why do so many organisations fear their women having babies and do so little to support them returning to work in a way that will enable them to be successful? Can a simple lack of understanding of the science and facts behind motherhood be getting in the way of women being supported to be their best at work?

What can employers do?

How can employers create an environment for their returning mums to thrive? As a coach specialising in working with return-to-work women and as a mother of two high-intensity little boys myself, I’ve been able to curate the knowledge, experience and advice from the many women I’ve worked with that would enable companies to do their best by their professional working mums.

  1. First and foremost, congratulate a woman when she tells you she’s pregnant. Celebrate that moment with her and allow it to be wonderful news. Giving your women implicit or explicit permission to feel excited about becoming a mother and not feel that they have to hide it or pretend that it won’t change them, will relieve an enormous amount of pressure and expectation and allow their brains to focus on how they can prepare, personally and professionally, in the best possible way.
  2. Start to have open conversations well before they go on maternity leave about what they enjoy and do well in their current role. Document this clearly and simply so that they have easy access to it when they come back to work.  Identifying where someone is successful in their role right now and what they are good at will help to remind them when they return, especially as they navigate those early days of being away from their child and trying to get their confidence back.  It also creates an opportunity to strip out areas of their job that they aren’t so good at and give them to someone else.  Change creates new options, and this is exciting.
  3. It goes without saying, and I’ll say it anyway.  Don’t ask a woman to indicate when she ‘might’ want to come back. Legally you shouldn’t, and also, she doesn’t know how she will feel when the time comes, which is why she needs the time and space to make that decision.
  4. Consider what emotional support you might want to offer to her as she builds up to leaving work.  For many women this is as daunting as coming back to work.  It’s a huge change, especially with a first child, and giving her a mentor or coach to share how she is feeling with can help to ensure she is as prepared as she can be.
  5. Plan, plan, plan.  When the time comes for a woman to return, don’t just ‘handover’ her old job to her and expect her to get on with it.  Think about what new relationships she might need to build.  Consider what she’s missed and what she doesn’t know. Create space for her to have catch up meetings with people for the purpose of cementing relationships. Co-create a plan for the first 30 days and the first 90 days so she has focus and structure.
  6. Offer her the opportunity for coaching – this safe space will allow her to work through her own challenges and emotions prior to coming back and once she has returned and can also give her a chance to plan how she wants her return to be.  The first few months of returning to work can be overwhelming.  Women often lack confidence, feel guilty and forget that they have something valuable to offer. Remind them that they do by investing in them.
  7. Check in.  Not in terms of tasks done but in terms of her emotional experience of returning to work.  You can guarantee that she’s juggling a lot behind the scenes - new childcare routines and settings, separation anxiety, sleepless nights.  Acknowledge it and make it normal.
  8. Ask her how you can best support her. What does she need?  What would be best for her so that she can be her best self at work.
  9. If you have children, don’t hide them away.  Have pictures up in the background on Teams/Zoom.  Decline meetings because you are going to a meeting at school.  Be open about when you need to leave work for childcare reasons. If you’re doing it, it makes it much easier for your returning mums to do it.  And they will pay you back in spades.  Gong the extra mile, logging on outside work hours, juggling.

Companies perform better with women at the top

We know that companies with more women executives are more likely to outperform those with fewer senior women****. So, the financial and commercial imperative is there as well as the moral one.  

In 2013, Ernst and Young made public details of the work they had put into maternity coaching and the findings that emerged. For those returning mothers who had been through either group or one-to-one coaching, some interesting statistics emerged:

  • 75% of those participants felt valued
  • 65% said that it helped with their personal challenges related to their job
  • 61% said it helped their engagement and maintained relationships with stakeholders
  • More than 50% said they would remain with Ernst and Young in the future
  • The retention rate for women returning to work after maternity leave was up 5 percentage points to 95%

No doubt that the numbers look great for Ernst and Young. However, it does suggest that the transition from work to maternity leave, and from maternity leave back to work, is much better managed once coaching support is received.

Coaching returning mothers pays dividends

Women are never the same when they come back to work after having a baby.  It’s true.  And with the right support they will often be even better.

If you’d like to talk confidentially about how you could support your returning mothers, so they thrive I’d welcome the opportunity of a chat.  Just email me here or call me on 07931 502519.  I’d be happy to share my experiences with you.

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