Women Leadership: Coming Back From Extended Leave

CoachHub · 16 May 2022 · 7 min read

Every year we can see more women in leadership positions. Many of them have children and are returning to work after a long break. In the famous book written by Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, a terrifying statistic was reported that “43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.” Sandberg. S, (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Every year, employers lose highly qualified women. The economic costs and implications are definitely unbearable.

A few real stories might make this concept more tangible.

Julia, 55, a manager in a manufacturing company. Despite her long tenure with the company and the skills developed, she still feels ‘not competent enough’ at times.  She often feels a lot of pressure, juggling the double responsibility of family and work management. She wants to assert herself and set boundaries, and to feel that her contribution is strategic.

Maria, 35, works in a consulting company. She believes her work is an important component for self-expression and is constantly looking for new challenges. She would like to have a baby but past examples have shown that management lessens the participation on  strategic client projects for women with families, and when other colleagues returned from maternity leave, their role and responsibility had become diminished. Many quit the company.

Liu Yiran, 34, employed in an internet company in Beijing, informed her employer of her pregnancy. Soon thereafter, her role was posted on recruitment websites. She was replaced a few months later and her salary payment stopped (this is the only true name, as per the article published on Human Rights Watch, ‘Take Maternity leave and you’ll be replaced’, B. Staffeur, 2021).

These stories are all testimonies collected over years of work on leadership and female inclusion. They give a powerful backdrop  to the otherwise ‘cold’ data we often hear when it comes to gender equality.

Women coming back from maternity leave

Defining the phenomenon

Although the quest to create gender balanced societies and organizations is on the rise, the data show us that there is still a long way to go. Many women are accessing high level education, nonetheless there is still a strong imbalance between women who take up managerial positions and those who stop at an entry level job.

The COVID-19 pandemic had an even stronger effect on the status quo, reinforcing the imbalance in gender representation at different levels in enterprises, and strongly impacting women’s wellbeing. A report by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, ‘Women in the workplace’, reveals also how much stress impacts women more than men. Burn-out cases during the pandemic increased for women, more than for men, in a struggle of managing the ‘double role’ between work and family support (+42% of women suffered burn-out vs. 35% in men, in the US).

One of the major roadblocks for women, especially the ones in leadership positions, is the difficulty they experience in managing time and priorities between work and a caregiving role, considering that in the majority of countries they are still the main holder of this position in their families.

Maternity Returners: the risk of wasting talent

For those women who are engaged with a double role at home and at work, if the company doesn’t provide enough flexibility and support, the risk is burn-out and a sure drop in performance in the medium-long term. ‘Maternity Returners’ is the term coined to describe those women who struggle to regenerate their former career after taking a significant break beyond maternity leave (Noon, van Nieuwerburgh, 2020).

What is the amount of waste a company can incur, when it is not able to create an inclusive context for women?
The ultimate outcome for these women is, in fact, quitting their job, getting a new job, or reducing their level of responsibility. The end result for the company is that, after years investing in a woman’s growth, training, education, she uses just a portion of her potential at the company’ service (or even nothing at all, in the cases of real leave).

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Why Should You Invest in Coaching?

Coaching can be a powerful way to develop awareness and new behaviors.
Women can benefit from coaching as there are many benefits to coachees that tackle several of the key issues women may struggle with.
If you aim at supporting women, in fact, coaching helps them to develop greater self-efficacy, but also to reflect on how to transfer the new skills developed through parenting to the job. It is also a great ally in stress reduction.

Coaching does that by helping coachees to ‘reframe’ their views of themselves, their successes, recognizing their own merits and competences. With a strengths-based approach for example, a coach can support the person’s energy and motivation, capitalizing on what already exists, what works and on the person’s own talents.

Insights for a Maternity Coaching Strategy

In case you are considering to introduce coaching to support your DE&I strategy and help women in leadership positions or young women coming back from maternity, CoachHub vision is to work both on generating a favorable context, where women can stretch their competencies and collect good experiences feeling empowered and psychologically safe, and at the same time supporting them in generating new narratives, to reinterpret and reframe their self-beliefs on the double role they are covering.

In other words, it’s fundamental to work at a systemic level and aim at engaging two key targets in a coaching program.

Coaching leaders

In order to generate a favorable context, a game-changer is to coach leaders so that they are able to adopt a more inclusive style, which acknowledges the specific challenges that women still face in the workplace. Women’s manager aiming at enhancing their development in the organization must increase their awareness of potentially biased perspectives when making decisions.

If you are a manager and you are, for example, planning to exclude a woman coming back from maternity from a strategic project, your coach might challenge your perspective and remind you that many women come back from maternity even more motivated to make their contribution strategic and effective.

As a coach commissioner, you can benefit from a ‘ripple effect’ deriving from coaching strategic influencers and leaders on being more inclusive with women: these leaders are going to ‘pollinate’ the rest of the company in adopting bias-free (or, at least, bias-reduced) behaviors, language and decision-making.

Coaching women

At the same time, the other targets to include in a coaching initiative are obviously women themselves.

Helping a woman to develop her self-confidence and self-efficacy means making her more aware of what she is capable of doing. Very often, in fact, if the context is gender-biased, the systems and structures in place in an organization support the ‘impostor syndrome’ of women who keep on doubting their own merit when they achieve professional success, ascribing it to luck, timing, or other external factors.

Here below, we highlight some of the concrete benefits that a woman can derive from maternity coaching.

Emotional influence

As a woman coming you might feel a sense of guilt for not being in a ‘100% of the time available’ mode, the discomfort resulting from a change of priorities, or a sense of exclusion from strategic decisions or changes happening during maternity leave.

Coaching for women during this transition is a valid support to increase women’s confidence in addressing these concerns and speak-up for their needs. Moreover, it’s a sign that the company is investing in women in maternity and in the generation of an inclusive context.

Reflection on career advancement

Maternity can be a wonderful occasion to reflect on career aspirations and reframe purpose and vision and an action plan that makes them practical. Coaching is a psychologically safe space where to transform fears and limiting beliefs in a new perspective which integrates the new values and skills in this professional direction. Literature has revealed that coaching for women in this peculiar phase of life has a strong impact on retention and motivation.

Practical influence

Finally, maternity coaching is a key to generating practical actions to favor re-integration in the workplace. By reframing and widening women’s perspectives, a coach can help a woman to find creative solutions to make the most of her time, to engage with stakeholders advocating for herself, setting objectives and goals for her return to work.


The so-called ‘brain-drain’ of women renouncing to their job or level of responsibility has still a strong economic impact: replacing or retraining women in leadership or employees that have devoted their expertise and experience to a company has a direct impact on its’ performance. It also generates a case for all the women around the employee herself, who might decide to move to more inclusive employers.

Nonetheless, many companies in all industries worldwide are tackling women’s issues seriously. Coaching is a powerful tool supporting the generation of a culture of inclusion in an organization. Its power lies in developing new awareness and solutions to embrace parenting as a normal and generative step in an employee’s life.

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