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Tackle hidden tensions of returning parents

Care-giving and bread-winning are not mutually exclusive, and employers need to recognise and address the hidden tensions faced by new parents when they return to work, writes executive coach Geraldine Gallacher.

Geraldine Gallacher

March 2020

It’s not a given that a professionally qualified woman wants to scale back her career when she has a child. I say this with confidence having coached hundreds of women through their return to work decision over the last 25 years. Why would they, after years of working hard work to qualify and build a professional reputation?

Employers are getting much better at supporting women on maternity leave with keeping in touch days and staged returns. However, not many directly input into women’s decisions made around the return. This excludes them from the opportunity to address any concerns or anxieties that a returner may see as insurmountable, often to the detriment of both parties.

Motherhood represents a period of profound change. It’s not just working practices, clients and technology that have changed. She has too, and this can create hidden tensions that lead her to conclude that she needs to step off the career ladder for a while.

By explicitly addressing these hidden tensions it is more likely a new mum will not just return but stay on a career track. A win:win decision for women who want to avoid the motherhood penalty and employers who are keen on closing the gender pay gap and get more women in finance into senior positions.

What are these hidden tensions and how can employers help?

Women tend to earn a successful career through working longs hours and a reputation for getting the job done. Their sense of self is tied up with career success.

Many returning mothers fear that they won’t be able to maintain their reputation if they put in fewer hours at work. This is particularly problematic for professional services where a long hours culture prevails. Equally they fear working long hours will compromise their ability to parent well.

Employers that talk to the returning mother about these competing identities can help her to accept these tensions as normal and open up discussions about ways to maintain her professional reputation other than working long hours. Focusing on playing to her strengths is a good starting place.

Men have a critical role to play in supporting their partner’s personal decision about whether it will be possible to manage work and home responsibilities. And as more men share longer periods of parental leave with their partner all the above advice will increasingly apply to them.

Too few couples sit down and properly discuss the likely impact on home and careers of both parents working. I cannot stress how important for their retention and wellbeing it is that they do. 

Forewarned is forearmed. Couples that have a realistic idea of the impact are able to put solutions in place to head off clashes before they become insurmountable. 

To counteract the strong pull from home, especially from family members who might automatically assume that females are the natural care-givers, employers need to push a different agenda which conveys that care-giving and bread-winning are not mutually exclusive or indeed, gendered.

Geraldine Gallacher is founder and managing director of The Executive Coaching Consultancy.

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