Companies are finally starting to get it: Giving moms maternity leave is a crucial component to keeping them happy—and keeping them from quitting. In fact, more companies than ever offered paid maternity leave in 2018.
It’s great news for moms in the U.S., the only developed country that doesn’t offer national paid maternity leave. But a new survey of professional, mainly management-level women in the U.K. provides a reality check to company execs who think expanding paid leave alone is all that’s necessary to keep mom employees from quitting. Quite simply: It’s not.
According to a survey of 1,000 working mothers conducted by British magazine MMB, which describes itself as the “modern working mothers magazine,” more than a third (37 percent) felt so unsupported and isolated when they returned to work that they wanted to quit. Only 18 percent felt happy and confident about work.
What’s remarkable about the results is that moms in the U.K. receive up to 50 weeks of maternity leave (with 37 of those weeks paid). Presumably many of the moms surveyed took the full 50 weeks—almost a year!—to stay home with their baby. It just goes to show that generous maternity leave alone isn’t enough to help women adjust to their new role as a working mom.
The notion flies in the face of what seems to have become conventional wisdom in the U.S.—that if you just give moms enough time off, they’ll be rested, refreshed and eager to return to work after maternity leave. It’s a convenient line of thinking—for employers, that is. It places the onus on moms to adjust to working, rather than on employers to adjust to having working mom employees. It’s moms who are expected to spend the last few weeks of maternity leave readjusting their baby’s feeding and sleeping schedule, as well as their own commuting schedule. Employers are simply required by law to provide a room and time for breast-pumping, and many don’t even do that. (According to a recent survey, one-half of pregnant women are worried breast-pumping will limit their career growth.)
What moms really need—in addition to a generous maternity leave—is support when they return to work. Of the women surveyed, only 17 percent felt they received “good communication and support through the maternity process.” The vast majority (90 percent) said they received no support through return-to-work programs or one-on-one coaching. And 60 percent were worried their requests for flexible working would be rejected.
That lack of support is sadly common in the U.S. too, where many returning moms are simply pointed in the direction of their desk and expected to work a rigid 9 to 5 (if not 6 or 7), with no allowances for their new life. “Oh, your daycare closes at 5 p.m.? That’s too bad.”
Even at companies that offer formal flexible work policies, employees are often afraid to take advantage of the benefit. Women with kids who ask for flexible work arrangements are often “mommy tracked” into less-demanding, lower-paying positions. That’s bad, and not just for moms. Recent studies have shown that when employees believe their career will be derailed just by taking time off or asking for small accommodations, they are less happy professionally and are more likely to say they will quit their jobs in the near future.
That’s why, in response to its survey, MMB has launched a campaign, #LeaveLoudly and #ReturnLouder, aimed at empowering women to call for better treatment, including a return-to-work program, from their companies.
“Our survey shows it’s time for action, not just talk,” said Abbie Coleman, founder of MMB. “#LeaveLoudly is about senior managers doing just that, to help normalize flexible working and change working culture to focus on production, not presenteeism.”
That's a campaign we'd love to see cross the pond.