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"Our business is our people and it is critical that we retain them. It is important to us to support women in making the transition from work to maternity and back again. The Executive Coaching Consultancy, through the provision of maternity coaching helps us to do this and reduce the risk of losing our talent."

Sasha Hardman, Head of HR - Support, Policy & Systems, Allen and Overy

Companies that want to retain key female talent need to rethink their attitude to returning mothers

by Geraldine Gallacher, Executive Coaching Consultancy

Are women still hitting the glass ceiling and being kept out of boardrooms, or do they actively choose to 'opt out' and lead more family-centric lives?

It's our experience as maternity coaches to over 1,000 professional women that it is a bit of both. Female and male careers follow different patterns, with significant implications for organisations that wish to retain female talent.

In the early phase of their careers, men and women essentially pursue the same goal: progression. They seek out challenges and are happy to prioritise their careers. During this phase, women generally feel that they are competing with their male counterparts on relatively even ground.

It's only in the next phase that the going starts to get tough for women. Irrespective of whether they have children, they gradually start to seek more balance in their lives. Their male colleagues, by contrast, continue to focus more exclusively on making their mark in the workplace.

For many women, this phase coincides with having children. From the point they return to the workforce after their first baby - or even before, when they first announce they are pregnant - many feel 'mummy-tracked'

How flexible their employer can be around this time matters hugely. Our research suggests that only 20 per cent of women describe themselves as 'home-centred' and a further 20 per cent as 'work-centred'. That suggests that the majority of women - 60 per cent - want to combine both work and home.

As a result, many women actively look forward to returning to work after the birth of a child and the opportunities that this new phase in their career will bring. If, however, a returnee is made to feel undermined or overlooked, it's likely she will quickly become disenchanted with juggling the roles of employee and mother.

We see two coaching challenges here. First, managers need to understand how their flexibility towards returning mothers can 'make or break' careers. They must shed the mindset of measuring an employee's worth by their presence, rather than their output, and offer more flexible ways of working.

Second, returning mothers need support and reassurance in making the transition. Equally, they need to be more pragmatic about what's achievable, given their new schedules.

When a new mother hands in her resignation, it's often accepted by their employer as 'inevitable'. We believe that's not the case at all. In fact, it's a tremendous waste of the time and money invested in them.

First published in The Times 30 Nov 2010

In the March 2011 Issue...

Posted on: 03.03.2011

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