4 Ways to Support Women Leaders Before and After Maternity Leave

CoachHub · 15 March 2023 · 8 min read

One of the most significant barriers women strive to overcome in the workplace is balancing their desires for a family and career progression. To conquer this barrier and close the gender gap, organisations must address the culture and policies surrounding parental leave. In many corporate cultures, taking maternity leave is tough for women because policies don’t ensure they won’t lose money or traction during their careers. Therefore, it is vital to change the stigma surrounding maternity leave and provide women with the support to take parental leave — if they choose — and succeed in their career aspirations. We have identified four ways your organisation can support women during all phases of parental leave.

Develop comprehensive parental leave policies

There are four phases surrounding parental leave in which organisations can support their employees. First is regarding the parental leave policy; consider how your organisation supports an employee who wishes to take parental leave. Next, assess how your organisation is supporting employees while on leave. And finally, it’s essential to implement a reintegration policy to reboard those on parental leave and support them in their return to work. Addressing these four phases in your organisation’s parental leave policy is crucial in supporting women — or any employee considering parental leave.

  • Parental leave policy: Research reveals that comprehensive and generous parental leave support can decrease depression among women who take leave. Therefore, any organisation’s parental leave policy must provide the necessary support throughout and following the leave. Gender-neutral policies give women the choice of whether to take leave and transitioning to gender-neutral parental policies allow employees to decide which spouse or partner takes the leave from work. Comprehensive plans include adequate time off, health benefits, flexible work schedules and child-care policies.
  • On-leave support: Support while on leave is critical to ensure employees feel their jobs are protected. Consider a “keep-in-touch” program. This program allows parents, should they so choose, to stay in contact with their workplace and colleagues. Put a virtual system or buddy program in place to facilitate updates on projects, clients, and coworkers. At the same time, respect parents on leave who choose to disconnect and focus on the time with their family.
  • Reintegration programs: Develop a process to support reintegration after a leave of absence. Parenting can be an asset or training period for developing leadership skills. Use coaching to promote awareness and foster skills learned outside of the company. Avoid leaving employees to fend for themselves upon return — reboarding them with the proper guidance to get them up to speed. Use a mentor who is familiar with the process to help acclimate employees returning to work.
  • Return to work support: Research shows that mothers returning to work can struggle with fear, guilt and grief, not only concerning their career but also regarding leaving their child at home. Create a support system by offering coaching and counselling for mothers to work through these feelings in a safe environment. Also, consider that women returning to work may still be nursing mothers. Implement the proper time and adequate spaces for women to have flexibility in this area.

Comprehensive parental leave policies will help create an inclusive environment, attract talent and foster diversity. A lack of healthy leave policies often leads to a high turnover of women within organisations. Supporting employees in every phase of leave is crucial to employees’ health and productivity within your organisation. Research shows that applying resources in this area can directly impact how seamlessly organisations transition individuals in and out of leave.

Maternity Leave

Promote gender diversity in the workplace

Gender diversity is a crucial aspect in supporting women in the workplace. Organisations are less likely to create policies reflecting the needs of women when women aren’t represented in their organisation. To achieve diversity, a culture change may be necessary within your organisation. Strive to create a de-biased workplace through education, awareness and gender equality in leadership.

  • Destigmatizing parental leave: In many cultures, women are still seen as the traditional care-giver. Unfortunately, this bias is often reflected in parental leave policies. Create an inclusive corporate culture and parental leave policies that give families a choice of who can take leave. Also, remember that women still give birth and nurse — account for this in designing your parental leave and return to work policies.
  • Promote females in leadership: Research shows that white males hold 62% of C-suite positions. Despite awareness and some progress made in recent years, the gender gap is a barrier to women’s career progression. Take an audit of the gender balance of leadership within your organisation. Then, ensure that your performance review and promotion policies reflect your goals in achieving diversity.
  • Use coaching to educate on gender equality: Many barriers women strive to overcome stem from unconscious biases. Some biases have been ingrained in a male-dominant workplace and can prevent people from seeing women as equals. These biases can cause individuals to see traits dominant in women as making them less fit than males for specific roles, or see women as caregivers instead of leaders. Utilise coaching within your organisation to educate on conscious and unconscious biases and how to overcome them.

Closing the gender gap requires taking steps to educate all employees as well as providing support for women. Gender-neutral policies supported by coaching can help change how women are perceived in the workplace. It’s vital to assess the gender balance within leadership and strive for equality, as achieving a balance within leadership can lead to a greater gender balance within the rest of your organisation.


Encourage a healthy work-life balance

When assessing your organisation’s work-life balance. Consider this National Library of Medicine study highlighting that an individual with a healthy work-life balance can be a more productive employee. Instead of providing additional flexibility solely for women or those on parental leave, consider implementing policies across your organisation that promote a healthier work-life balance.

  • Healthy employees are productive ones: Promote a culture of well-being within your organisation. Implement benefits supporting physical and mental health. For example, provide access to counselling, gym memberships and mental health days.
  • Qualitative vs. Quantitative: Focus on the strategic and qualitative contribution rather than time spent at work. A Stanford University study suggests that more time at work doesn’t always equate to more productivity. Have your organisation’s performance review policies reflect actual contributions rather than time spent at work.
  • Foster a culture of flexibility: Make work-life balance and flexibility an opportunity for everyone and part of the corporate culture. Individuals require flexibility to succeed as both a parent and an employee. Rethink any organisational expectations outside of normal work hours (scheduling meetings or calls) and how that might affect individuals juggling schedules.

In a post-pandemic era, policies regarding work flexibility are becoming more commonplace. It’s important to take steps to destigmatize rest and look out for the mental well-being of every individual. Organisations can support mothers, or any individual, through childcare subsidies, comprehensive health insurance, and paid parental leave. Fostering a culture of flexibility and holistic health will lead to healthier, more productive employees.

Supporting women leaders through the employee lifecycle

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Foster women’s leadership development

Empowering women within your organisation and providing them with the required support to overcome inequality is crucial. Strive to provide women with the tools they need to succeed. Foster leadership development through networking, coaching and supporting the women within your organisation to navigate social politics.

  • Build a women’s network: Connection between women in the workplace can reduce the sense of loneliness often experienced during leave. It can also provide women with tools and advice from those who have gone through the parental leave and reboarding process. Provide time and space during work, so it’s not an additional task on an employee’s schedule.
  • Coach women and their managers: Implement pre-, during, and post-leave coaching. Coaching can aid in raising awareness of their skills and help counteract impostor syndrome. Coaching supports leaders in connecting an individual’s work-life to parts of their life outside of work and acknowledging the whole person. Additionally, coaching can promote skills learned on the parenting journey.
  • Support navigating organisation politics: A common barrier women identify is the office politics that exist in organisations. Traditionally women wish to have their hard work speak for itself rather than managing office dynamics and employee motivations. Help overcome this barrier by teaching your organisation the Political Skill Inventory (PSI). The inventory can foster skills like social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability and apparent sincerity. Education in this area will give every employee within your organisation the tools to navigate the social politics that exist within your organisation.

Success for women in leadership can be directly linked to how your organisation invests in people development. First, think about how to invest in both leadership and those wishing to advance within your organisation. Then, take steps toward gender equity by equipping all employees with the skills to face organisational politics and overcome any barriers to unlocking their potential.


Engaging management and leaders

Engaging management is an essential piece to implementing effective parental leave policies. They can help promote an inclusive environment for women returning from maternity leave while also destigmatizing taking parental leave. It is vital to equip leaders with the tools to properly support women pre-, during, and post-parental leave. It’s possible to coach leadership to help those in your organisation to overcome and recognise unconscious biases and their impact on people’s decisions, especially regarding women on leave. Support from leadership can help turn challenges into opportunities and roadblocks into stepping stones.


Moving forward

It is critical to develop a healthy corporate culture surrounding parental leave. Organisations should support women in all aspects of parental leave and strive to create a positive return to work culture. Through a comprehensive parental leave policy, it’s possible to highlight your organisation’s commitment to gender diversity. In addition, implementing policies that empower women in all phases of their employee life-cycle will give them the support they need to feel they have an equal opportunity for career advancement.

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