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Strength through Maternity: Why the right attitude to maternity dramatically improves company perfor

A company's attitude to maternity is far more important than its policy. Many businesses have progressive staff maternity policies. But look beneath the policy to the attitude of the people in the company, including its managers and senior executives. Do the leaders in your company implicitly view maternity leave as an unavoidable overhead, a tax on employing women? What are the unintended consequences of that attitude upon business performance?

The truth is that, with the right company attitude, maternity leave usually increases individual performance. And, if you take the risk of believing that, then the performance of the entire company will also improve, not just those eligible for maternity. And not eventually, but immediately.

Perhaps your first reaction to these statements is to suspect political correctness on my part. I assure you that I don't make these claims flippantly. I assert them after a 26-year career to date working in senior positions in multiple high-growth, successful organisations, including most recently five years as COO of Skyscanner.

So, please bear with me a little longer and let's explore the positive performance contribution of maternity to business and how critical it is to have the right company attitude towards it.

Maternity leave makes good people better

In talking to many women approaching their first maternity leave, almost everybody worries about the following:

  • “When I come back to work, the business will have moved on and my skills won't be relevant anymore.

  • The business learned to live without me, so they don’t need me now.”

  • “As a new mother, my time will be compromised, therefore so will my career because the company will believe I am no longer as committed.”

If the wider company shares these same fears, then they become self-fulfilling. But I remember my first proper job as a software engineer after graduation. There were several young people like me in the team. We were all very good programmers but getting ourselves out of bed and into work on time with our shirts tucked in was quite an achievement (yes, we had to wear shirts in those days). As for managing our time effectively, making good priority judgements, keeping perspective and handling set-backs, these were all things we had still to learn.

Katrina had the desk next to me. She had returned quite recently from maternity leave, having delivered triplets twelve months before. Although on her return she initially lacked up-to-date knowledge on the specifics of our project, she soon caught up on that.

But the skills she had developed as a new mother whilst on maternity leave were highly applicable to the working environment. Because she now absolutely had to be in her private life, Katrina had become extraordinarily well organised in everything. She used every minute of her time effectively, she had perspective, was an excellent prioritiser and was a calm, balanced influence on us all.

It was as if she'd been on an advanced project management course with months of hands-on experience; those were the skills that she'd had to practice every day whilst on maternity leave to make an instant family of three function, with all the responsibility that goes with it. Those skills automatically transferred to her approach to work.

Companies should stop thinking of maternity leave as lost time. It's more accurate to think of that time as an effective form of personal development investment:

  • It makes you a better project manager, prioritiser and multitasker.

  • You become better at time-management and, because you can’t just work into the night to recover a slipping task, you don’t distract yourself with office-trivia or social-media during the day. And you find smarter ways to get things done than through brute-force presenteeism.

  • It tends to develop your maturity; often you are better at putting setbacks and triumphs into their proper perspective than you were before.

If you are a mother returning from maternity and your colleagues choose to focus on these benefits then the likelihood is that you'll capitalise on them to everyone's gain. On the other hand, if your colleagues reflect the fears above back to you then the benefits will be lost beneath anxiety and insecurity. It's simply a question of which viewpoint the company's leaders choose to propagate, implicitly and explicitly.

Maternity increases the performance of the whole company

What about the effect of maternity leave on the company as a whole? With the right attitude to maternity, the positive impact on a company’s performance is dramatic. Attitude affects whole-company performance because it has such a strong impact on the engagement of all employees, not just those about to go on maternity leave.

It’s easier to illustrate this effect by looking first at the converse case; where a company has the wrong attitude to maternity. Firstly, let’s develop a sense of what the wrong attitude to maternity is. For example:

  • Managers whisper things to other team members like “Oh no, not another one” when more than one woman announces that she is pregnant within a short window of time.

  • Women express the fears described above, and colleagues confirm these to be true.

  • Flexible working policies exist more or less in name only. Presence in the office is regarded as equivalent to impact.

Even in more progressive organisations, it is easy to unwittingly send confusing messages. For example; what if a company offers the benefit of Freezing Your Eggs?This is a great policy for those women who wish to delay pregnancy for their own personal reasons. But the perceived intent behind such a policy needs to be managed very carefully. The consequence can be to send a message to all women in the company that "It’s Not OK for you to Have a Baby and Still Want a Career, so May we Suggest that you Delay the Former?". There is then almost a cultural pressure to delay pregnancy, for the good of the company (and for your career prospects within it).

The fact is that taking two-to-three years out of a 45-year working period should not impact anyone’s career. It’s our collective conditioning that it should that becomes self-fulfilling.

The reason why the wrong company attitude to maternity has such a large impact on whole-company performance is this: women make decisions as a consequence of their company’s and colleagues’ attitudes to maternity several years before they actually plan to have children. If your company's attitude is that maternity is a consequential inconvenience then women are far more likely to unconsciously or otherwise reduce their engagement in the business years before they actually start a family. After all, the company has implicitly communicated that it will one day reduce its engagement in them. In aggregate, that's a lot of disengagement.

Imagine if your company’s attitude to maternity was such that women didn’t experience this disengagement impetus from the business? How much more engaged and productive would your company be overall, right now?

And this point reaches back much farther than first seems the case. It's not surprising that many young women develop a model of their working lives in which they have 10-years to develop a great career before babies arrive, after which it is effectively over or at least severely compromised.

Consequently, I’ve seen many young women chronically stressed by this perceived career sell-by date, years before they actually plan to have children. They experience a pressure to make short-term career planning decisions in an attempt to accelerate things as much as possible in the limited time that they have.

But this effort can often be counter-productive. Imagine you were told that you had five years to live and that you had to make as much career impact as possible in that time. Would you make great career decisions? Now instead imagine the beneficial effect upon your business if this impetus towards short-termism, with its attendant desperation, was lifted from half of your people.

This really is a whole-company issue. Men are also parents and feel the same pressures, albeit diluted somewhat. And all of the people in a business pay attention to how their colleagues are treated when they need support for a life-decision or help with changing circumstances. They do so because they know that their time of need will come too, perhaps through bereavement, illness or a request for a much-needed break. Mismanage any demographic in your company and you reduce the engagement level of allemployees.

In business, we often feel the need to prioritise short-term considerations over long-term cultural investments. This is a false trade-off. Long-term investments almost always have an immediate benefit because of the effect of business intent on current engagement. Nowhere is this most powerfully illustrated than through the strength of your attitude to maternity.

Today's prevailing attitude to maternity in many organisations will, in 20 years, look as counterproductive to performance as past intolerance of racial diversity or sexual-orientation looks to us now. We should bring that day forward, not only to avoid future embarrassment, but also so that we can benefit from the significant performance improvement to our businesses that the right attitude to maternity unlocks.

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