Keep in touch through maternity leave

| August 27, 2018

New mums who keep in touch with their workplace while on maternity leave are more hireable and less likely to experience unconscious bias, according to new Australian and Canadian research.

Newbornlife is often filled with broken sleep, juggling regular feeding and naps and copious amounts of washing, meaning work can often be the last thing on a mother’s mind, but the study found that staying connected to work has significant career benefits, particularly if taking a longer maternity leave period.

Researchers from Canada and Australia surveyed 558 Canadian employees and asked them to review a job application for a marketing manager role where the candidate had taken a year of maternity leave.

Survey participants were randomly presented with one of four scenarios:

1 The would-be marketing manager had used a keeping in touch program while on maternity leave;

2 The keeping in touch program existed but the would-be marketing manager hadn’t used it while on maternity leave;

3 There was no information about whether the keeping in touch program had been used while on maternity leave;

4 There was no reference to a keeping in touch program.

Agency perceptions, job commitment and hireability were the highest when the candidate had used the keeping in touch program while on maternity leave.

While economists have looked at maternity leave length and career impact, the study, published in the prestigious Journal of Applied Psychology, was the first of its kind to investigate why women were often penalised for taking a longer maternity leave, and strategies to overcome this.

One solution to overcome perceptions could be keeping in touch programs.  Platforms such as Grace Papers advocate for keeping in touch as a key strategy to navigate career and care.

Grace Papers is an online platform that empowers parents to define their professional vision, understand their entitlements, identify bias, transition in and out of the workforce and negotiate flexibility.

RMIT School of Management lecturer and paper co-author Dr Raymond Trau said women could use keeping in touch programs as an image management strategy to minimise bias from colleagues, managers and employers.

“There’s often all kinds of biases – sub conscious and unconscious – towards women who have longer maternity leave and keeping in touch programs can help minimise them. These biases may come from people directly impacted by a woman going on maternity leave,” Dr Trau said.

“We found the woman who participated in a keeping in touch program in the research scenario was perceived as more hireable because she was engaged with her work and committed to her career, even though she wasn’t currently working.”

Grace Papers CEO and founder Prue Gilbert said keeping in touch programs informed, guided and empowered new mums to stay connected to their workplaces over the short term, and, when coupled with professional development support, kept them engaged with their careers over the longer-term.

“The research also highlights the unconscious biases women are still expected to challenge to keep their careers on track, and why it is imperative that employers consider the systemic changes required to support managers and peers to overcome these biases,” Gilbert said.

“Smart employers, for example, integrate keeping in touch into a broader parental leave program that equips staff and managers alike with education, communication strategies and tools to transition in and out of work, and address systemic biases like assuming a woman has lost her ambition because she is taking 12 months of parental leave.

“When women can turn up to a return to work meeting with their employer and feel like they are equipped with the clarity about their career trajectory, the flexibility that will enable them to realise their potential, and the knowledge their contribution makes to their workplace, we level the playing field.

“It is no longer about working mums asking if their bosses will let them work part-time.”