The results of Grazia’s Women and Work survey in July – which found that nine in 10 women said that "child-free workers resented the flexi-hours and time off mothers can have" – serves to highlight the unconscious biases that can permeate at all levels of a company, creating friction between the population of working mothers and other team members.
HRDs work hard to put in place the right support for women within their organisations. Although these can be the first step in addressing the systemic barriers that exist, long-term change can only come from deep cultural shifts. This means instigating meaningful adjustments in thinking and behaviour at all levels. Although it may be a headache for HRDs, for many talented individuals it can mean the difference between survival and sustainability.
Researching employee experiences and asking staff what they’d like to see changed, will help to create an individual business change programme; prevent budgets being wasted on ineffectual initiatives; and aid the measurement of ROI. Senior-level endorsement is crucial in encouraging change to filter through at each level – but, depending on the willingness to look deeper at the culture, it’s typically the hardest part as many will find it uncomfortable.
Initiatives such as regular manager and HR training can be a great way to raise awareness around unconscious bias and the issues employees are facing, as well as help an organisation’s leaders to support their teams and become roles models. Their positive views will in turn rub off on those they manage.
Once the senior team is on board, management must be equipped with the skills to sustain team performance, manage expectations and improve workplace dynamics. With the example of maternity leave, managers should actively involve their teams in the process of coping with change and help staff to see what opportunities are opened to them to develop new skills or take on new responsibilities; it will help staff to feel more in control of the situation. Recognising good performance under additional pressure, or with a greater workload, will also help keep teams positive about the changes.
At each stage of the maternity transition, managers should have clear and open communication with all members of the team, manage expectations around the return of their colleague, and deal with any concerns upon return promptly. For example, there may be frustrations around someone working flexibly – so it’s important to get feedback from the team about how they feel it’s working in order to manage the impact on the team. If possible, offer flexible work options to all employees as it’s a good way to remove the separation between working parents and other team members.
Before the woman is back from maternity leave, managers must carefully consider the redistribution of work and ongoing roles. This will help to manage team expectations and allow staff to feel clear and confident about the roles of their colleagues.
On an individual level, maintaining the confidence, effectiveness and career of women returning to work after maternity can be difficult for managers. Our own research in November showed that 53% of women suffer a blow to confidence levels, and one out of two respondents were concerned about being viewed differently or more negatively by their colleagues upon returning from maternity leave. In short, their experience can be directly linked to that of the rest of team; so putting positive measures in place to support working mothers and communicating effectively with the teams in which they work will go a long way. Keeping in contact with the women on maternity leave will also aid a smooth transition back into the workplace.
Until now this issue has been focused around women, but as the recent report highlights, family norms are changing, and as parental duties become more equally shared – for example, from April 2011, men will be able to share a proportion of parental leave – the friction experienced in the workplace will stop being a gender issue. If HRDs don’t tackle these challenges head on, they risk perpetuating a culture that doesn’t reflect any family-friendly policies they may have, and subsequently force key talent to reconsider their future careers as their families grow.
Jo Lyon is director and co-founder at Talking Talent