One Question that Derails Women at Work

A pregnant woman sitting at her desk.
One of the first questions a woman hears when announcing a baby at work is, "Are you coming back?"

It's also one of the least helpful.

Why? First, because it's irritating (I mean, really). But also because it's the first subtle suggestion that maybe she's not supposed to come back...or at least isn't supposed to want to.

The pressure on women to opt out is pretty powerful. The stay-at-home mom model may be but a blip on our societal radar, but it grew up in our lifetime...and it's a tough one to shake. Need more proof? Take a gander at this. Exasperatingly, nobody seems to believe women want to come back to work - so much so that even when women are themselves excited about post-motherhood careers (and according to our Modern Family Index, most of them are), they assume they're merely outliers. Every woman who took our recent quiz at the Bright Horizons' Working Mother conference booth guessed low on the number of women who wanted to come back after leave (the Modern Family Index answer was over 90%). Even more shocking, "All of them were skeptical of the answer," said Bright Horizons' Laura Aiken, who was at the booth, "even though many said they'd been excited to come back to work themselves." That makes "Are you coming back?" potentially another chip at a woman's confidence about whether she really should.

For Women at Work, A Figurative "Uh-Oh"

Second, from a manager, "Are you coming back?" is like a warning shot across the bow; the figurative "uh-oh" that makes women question if they're really wanted back, or if there's doubt about their future productivity. Many new moms told the Modern Family Index they were treated differently after announcing a baby. And it became the first nudge that pushed them out the door.

If we really want to keep women (and it's pretty clear we need to), there are better questions to ask when they announce a baby. Here are three of them:

How can we work together?

Including women in the plan conveys support. "When I told my supervisor I was pregnant, she congratulated me and said one thing," recalls one working mom. "She said, ‘Let's discuss how we can ensure you can build up to your leave successfully, remain engaged while gone, and then re-enter successfully.' She made all the difference." Not surprisingly, that woman is still on the job.

How do you want to handle your leave and return plan?

It's tempting to assume you'll be doing a woman a favor by volunteering to lighten her load. But that's what Karen Rubin calls "Benevolent Discrimination;" and it has a distinct downside. "Sometimes individuals don't want that," says Karen, managing director of parent-coaching company, Talking Talent, "and they think the suggestion implies a lack of confidence in them." A more effective approach is to remind women how much they're valued and ask for their input. "Many employees are concerned about their role and career path as they are preparing for returning from parental leave, so a little reassurance can alleviate hours of unnecessary and unproductive rumination."

What do you see as your challenges?

Nobody denies that working and parenting is tough. That makes this a good time to discuss that and talk about benefits the company has to offer. "Having new parents on your team is a chance to be candid about the challenges inherent in balancing work and home life," wrote author and Orange Grove work/life consultant Jodi Detjen recently. "It is a great time to confront biases and encourage women AND men to share openly about the tricky business of caring for a family and building a career."

Those are just three questions aimed at retaining women at work. There are others - including questions about how connected women want to stay while on leave. All of them reframe the leadership starting point from, "How do I replace you?" to "How do I get to keep you?"

"Listen to them, coach them, and let them own their paths back to work," wrote Bright Horizons' Elisa Vincent recently.

Perhaps most of all, when they tell you they want to come back...believe them. 
Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
A pregnant woman sitting at her desk.

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