Want to Keep Working Mothers? Here is How.

mothers returning to work

Aili, a manager in a busy marketing department, went out on maternity leave with absolute certainty she'd be back. Her confidence, she says, had a very specific source: she'd seen many mothers returning to work successfully before her.

"Having children was built into the company," says Aili, who'd been with the organization for five years when she had her first baby. "It wasn't an inconvenience that was frowned on - it was considered a normal part of a career."

That normal-ness may be the secret to mothers returning to work. While a lot has been written about the retention power of specific benefits (flexible schedules, coaching, and child care among them), research shows the successful use of those programs has value beyond helping new mothers come back today - it also frames the perspectives of working mothers who will go out on leave tomorrow.

The Secret to New Mothers Returning to Work

Those perspectives can make or break retention strategies. Data from our Modern Family Index (MFI) show that women's post-baby exit plans are percolating well before a baby. By the time they go out on leave, they've already sized up their future career potential based on the experiences of working parents before them. When those experiences aren't good (and in many cases, they're not, with new parents reporting harsh judgments and negative stereotypes among the new-parent side effects), they're setting their professional sights elsewhere, usually for companies that are family friendly.

There's another secret to mothers returning to work; backing up benefits with organization-wide support. Even the most progressive core values can be undone by self-defeating practices that take place around an employer's edges. So laying the template for successful reentry has to start with a cultural shift, including:

Company-wide support of values

A recent study showed women are being punished for using the very benefits - such as flex time - designed to make their lives easier. Such actions say company culture isn't being supported throughout the organization. And they speak louder than any employee handbook. Worse, all the good work of assembling that great return-to-work program will get lost in an experience that doesn't live up to its billing.

Individualized career support

Post-leave career coaching will fall flat if you automatically counsel all women to scale back. "Supervisors tend to try to safeguard women when they return to work," says Elisa Vincent, Bright Horizons director of leadership and professional development. It's necessary to an extent, she says. "But, if the employees don't specifically request this, it runs the risk of keeping them from fully re-engaging and taking back their full responsibilities."

"No Returning Mother Wants to Feel Like She's Being Benched"

The latter - the ability to amp up to full throttle - was especially meaningful to Aili, who said no returning mother wants to feel like she's being benched. It also spoke to another important piece of MFI data - that women genuinely want to come back to work after leave. "I was excited to come back," Aili says, echoing the 96% of women who told the MFI the same thing. Her experience with the company illustrates why employers' post-leave structures today will inform talent strategies for years to come.

"I love that my company affords me the opportunity to be a successful working mother," says Aili, highlighting another fringe benefit of a supportive culture - the fact that women who come back successfully work to help other women do the same.

"I am excited to help support the next mom in my department who goes out. It truly takes a village."

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.