With our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern commencing her six weeks' maternity leave, never has there been a more fitting time to talk, once again, about the fear that women have about taking a career break.
A 2014 London Business School survey showed that women are anxious about the effect taking time out for maternity leave will have on their career, and of those surveyed 70 per cent of women fear taking a career break.
As a leadership coach, working with leaders up and down the country, I've had a front row seat to this statistic. Many women executives have whispered (almost apologetically) to me in career coaching sessions that they worry about taking too much time off, in case their careers suffer as a result. The dread of pay gaps and being 'left behind' is as pervasive as it is real.
I have my own story to share. I went back to work after my third child earlier than I wanted to, partly because I feared that taking the full 12 months off might have a negative impact on my future career prospects within the firm.
With all three of my pregnancies, I admit to feeling caught out. Do I risk being judged by others for taking too little time off, or taking too much time off? Watching increasing pay gaps and decreasing career prospects become my reality.
My feelings around taking time off from work were jumbled and guilt-ridden. Spending time with my little ones at such an important time in their lives made me happy and excited, but I was also concerned about the potential impact taking a year off would have on my career. I worked in an industry where personal brand was important and out of sight meant out of mind in the market.
When I returned to work after just five months of maternity leave (with my third child), I received the full range of responses from the people around me. Everything from respect and "you do you," through to judgement that my daughter was too little to be put into daycare.
Unfortunately, some of the harshest judgements came from other women. We need to lift each other up ladies! Every parent must make their own choice, there is no right or wrong way.
What I learned
• Communication is key. I learned (the hard way) that planning and communication are key for a smooth transition back into work. Start planning your return well before the first day back. Talk to your boss, your spouse, your support crew about what's needed and make sure the first day of childcare doesn't coincide with the first day back at work, unless tears (yours and theirs) are what you're after!
• Embrace the chaos. Perfectionism, parenting and a professional life are NOT a marvellous trio. The number of times I rocked up to a meeting in my power suit only to discover it covered in baby snot are too many to count. Give yourself a break.
• Don't be too timid. Ask for what you want when it comes to position, terms, salary and flexibility. What's the worst that can happen – your employer says no?
• Don't ditch the exercise. This might seem a bit left field, but often working mothers put themselves last and exercise seems a bit of a luxury. It's not. Research shows overwhelmingly the link between exercise and performance at work, resilience and mental health. There have been times (even now) when a 20-minute run has been a lifesaver for me.
What needs to change
Back in 2015, Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, announced she would take only two weeks of maternity leave. She received a great deal of backlash for choosing to take so little leave. Her personal choice was the subject of many discussions, mostly people shaming and judging. I find it hard to believe that we'd have had the same level of debate and criticism if the CEO became a second-time father and decided to take two weeks of paternity leave. And I'm pretty sure that my male colleagues sure as heck weren't losing sleep over whether having kids might have a negative impact on their career trajectory.
However, when I put my 'leadership coach' hat back on, I tell myself it's not helpful to stay in 'victim mode' for too long. There are many different positive things both women and organisations can do to ease the fears women have at taking a career break.
• Get rid of pay inequity. Measure it, talk about it, do things to close the gap in your organisation, period. If you aren't in a leadership role, share articles on this topic with those in the decision-making seat. It's a hot topic right now and if you position the pay equity conversation by listing "what's in it for the organisation," most senior executives will perk up and listen.
• Bring more diversity to the top table. The more women leaders there are having kids, not having kids, having lots of time off for parental leave or having little time off, working full time with children or working part time with children - the more role models women will have to choose from. There's nothing like seeing ourselves in others to start to decipher our own, best way. That's difficult if there's only one - or worse, no role models to potentially see ourselves in. Bonus: it's also good for business – organisations that have more diversity at the top table perform better financially.
• Leadership teams, have conversations in your organisation about this topic. Provide platforms for conversations on how to better support parents when they take parental leave - and how and when they return. Give your people a voice on the solution, as well as the problem. Monthly one on ones, development conversations, meetings – these are all platforms to have conversations about pay equity.
• Encourage men to take paternity leave. We talk about equality, but as a society still struggle with the concept. If we saw more men taking parental leave, we would also see the gap in pay inequity closing. And fast. Explore unconscious bias in your organisation and in your team – and perhaps most importantly, in yourself. It's probably more prevalent than you think.