Maternity leave: a birthplace for new workplace skills

maternity leave

Article by Rachel King, Marketing Director at Breathe

A decade into the 21st century, it should really go without saying that any small business which doesn’t appreciate the importance of women in the workplace is missing out.

Besides doubling the size of their talent pools, for example, recruiting women into these companies may also improve their financial performance. Indeed, research shows that the Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards outperform those with the lowest.

Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from achieving gender parity, with women still paid less than their male colleagues in many cases. What’s more, there is still often a stigma around women returning to work from maternity leave. The first issue is an ongoing battle for campaigners, politicians, and employers, while the second requires a change of mindset, repositioning new mothers as a positive asset to their employers.

Concerns over commitment

More than 80 percent of women will become mothers during their working life and, with the average age of motherhood being 30, around three quarters of women of working age will have at least one child.

According to a recent survey, however, almost three in ten women thought taking maternity leave had a negative impact on their career. Among the challenges reported, one in five felt it had put them at greater risk of being fired, with a similar proportion believing it meant they were passed over for new opportunities. As a result, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated that, by the time a woman’s first child was 12 years old, her hourly rate of pay will have fallen to 33 percent less than that of a man.

But, despite these concerns, most women are genuinely keen to come back to work after having a child, and plan to be as committed to their job post-baby as they were before. More than half look forward to developing their career – and there’s  no reason why this shouldn’t be the case. After all, having a child doesn’t mean a woman will lose the skills, knowledge and expertise she’s gained over the length of her career so far.

There’s a concern, though, that employers might see returning mothers as being less committed to the business. The truth is, in the time they’ve been away raising their child, new mothers have gained a number of transferable skills that can actually make them a greater asset to the company.

Whole new skillset

Many mothers find that, upon returning to work, they have gained a whole new skillset over the course of their maternity leave. Time management, for example, is crucial to successful parenting. Children need to be fed, bathed and clothed. Dogs must be walked, washing and shopping done, and children collected from nursery. Tasks such as these need to be carefully considered and prioritised to ensure the day runs smoothly.

Planning skills are sharpened too. Whether it’s packing for a trip to the swimming pool or drawing up a shopping list that caters for everyone’s tastes and timing – while remaining within budget – detailed planning is paramount. At the same time, of course, a capacity for multi-tasking is a necessity. After all, there’s nothing quite as disruptive as a small child. Plans will constantly change, and tasks will need to be prioritised and reprioritised throughout the day. And when plans go awry – and they will, sometimes drastically – mothers will often need to draw on their crisis management skills to deal with whatever challenge the day has just thrown at them.

Sometimes, there can be too much for one person to manage on their own. Mothers must therefore know when – and how – to delegate tasks to friends and family members, asking for help with the shopping or housework, say, so they can concentrate on more important jobs such as feeding the baby and getting him or her to sleep.

Finally, exceptional communication and negotiation skills are essential for any mother, not least when trying to reason with their own child.

No instruction manual

From time management, planning, and multi-tasking, to crisis management, delegation, communication and negotiation, each of these skills quickly becomes part of a new mother’s daily routine, usually through necessity rather than choice. And each of these is hugely valuable when that new mother returns to the workplace.

What’s more, for first-time mothers especially, having a child is largely unexplored territory. Each day will bring something new, very often requiring mothers to learn as they go. This capacity for developing new skills on the fly is a huge asset for any employee, especially in today’s rapidly changing digital world.

We’re slowly moving closer to gender parity in the workplace. Today, more women than ever are leaving work to have a baby. But rather than worrying about a lack of motivation or commitment on their return, new mothers and employers alike should look at the new skills they’ve developed while away, and how this can only be better for business.

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