More Firms Trying to Retain Women Through Maternity Programs

American firms are increasingly adopting measures to retain high-powered women through their work maternity programs.

Ferne Traeger, founder and president of Beyond the Boardroom, is an executive coach and organizational consultant who works with a U.K.-based firm called My Family Care that offers seminars for each stage of the maternity transition. In England, it’s nothing to go on a six- or nine-month leave for maternity, and get paid for it. However, paid maternity leave in the U.S. is typically just three months at most firms.

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“Here, the significance of the change is not really acknowledged at work, particularly for executive women,” said Traeger. “The goal for (more American) firms is to retain executive women after they go on maternity leave, and my goal is to help women return to their careers.”

Traeger says she worked with one senior associate at a law firm who before her pregnancy thought she was on the partner track. When she became pregnant, she felt she lost momentum.

“She felt like the pregnancy derailed her,” said Traeger. “All of a sudden someone behind her is getting ahead of her.” Then the pregnancy ends up becoming a “disability”, said Traeger.

The business case for firms to support new mothers and fathers through the transition of parenthood is the cost of losing competent, skilled employees.

“What was happening is that women colluded with their employers to ignore the transition,” said Traeger, “and then when they returned (to work), there was fallout.”

And as a result women would end up leaving their jobs.

Citigroup (NYSE:C) was one firm that noticed women were not returning to work after maternity leave. The firm in the U.K. partnered with an expert consulting firm in 2006 to help maternity transitions in the workplace. That program was adopted in 2010 by the company's U.S. operations.

“How do you keep women that have 10 years with the firm, who are leaders in the organization and have great relationships in the business?” said Jennifer Liston-Smith, Director of Coaching and Consultancy at My Family Care. “It’s a total emphasis on helping the employee navigate through the process while keeping her confidence and career on track.”

Research by Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan in 2005 used by My Family Care shows women leave jobs for the same reasons men do: lack of opportunities, job dissatisfaction and lack of organizational commitment. When women feel blocked by rigid policies or the glass ceiling, they are more likely to respond to the pull of the family, the study said.

Women feel professionally marginalized when they become pregnant, say maternity coaching experts. “Once a woman announces her pregnancy, she has to be focused and vigilant in order to stay on her career track,” said Traeger.

The services typically use one-on-one coaching for senior executives and seminars for lower level employees.

“It’s a very wonderful thing to know that this law firm has invested in a maternity coaching plan,” said Ruth Teitelbaum, an associate at global law firm Freshfields, who used Traeger’s services through the law firm in New York. “To acknowledge that employees have younger children is unique, it’s sending the message that you are valued.”

Maternity coaching experts say there are a couple of main issues that are common among women taking maternity leave. “The top issue is communicating with their manager and ensuring their manager sees their perspective in terms of their career ambitions,” said Liston-Smith.

Otherwise there are big assumptions made on both sides, according to the experts. They say some employers see a woman’s maternity leave as a sign that she wants to slow down at work. Experts say be proactive by defining your short-term career goals as a working mother, which will help guide your manager on how to be supportive during your pregnancy.

“It’s helped me take control of the situation much sooner with a coach,” said Teitelbaum speaking about her transition.

Maternity coaches help ensure women who are going on maternity leave have good conversations with the right people. Having the conversation with the senior partner in the team, a person who is going to weigh in on your career path, is key, say coaching experts.

During the maternity leave, the coaches are available. “I talk to women about what kind of childcare they want, back-up childcare options, how they feel about getting back to work, we talk about the practicalities,” said Traeger.

The bulk of the work is really when women return from maternity. Through the program, the focus is on how to set boundaries, how to do time management and how to prioritize, especially in the first month back. Managing expectations when returning from maternity leave can get tough at work, say experts, in particular dealing with leaving work at a certain time.

“When you come back from maternity leave, you come back with a little less confidence,” said Traeger. That’s why having good communication with the manager and having a support network at work and at home is key, she said.

“Women tell us these conversations have been a huge confidence builder when returning to work,” said Liston-Smith.  The discussion with the manager often includes what the options are to allow for flexibility in the schedule and how to focus on the priorities at work.

Coaching experts say the reaction from employers is equally positive.

“They are very glad that they get key women reporting back to work after maternity leave,” said Liston-Smith. “They can take that to the CEO or the board when they talk about getting more diversity into the firm.”

While U.S. firms may still be playing catch-up to U.K.-based firms to embrace these programs, the trend is beginning to emerge.

“When helping new moms who are trying to carve out flexible working arrangements post return from maternity leave, I help them to frame this not so much as a 'mommy issue,' said Traeger, “but one that might pertain to any employee going through a significant life event.”