Retaining Female Talent Is Easier Than You Think

It’s time for companies to stop blaming motherhood for the talent drain and take responsibility for their role in driving talent away.

I feel angry and frustrated and sad. Yesterday I had lunch with a bright talented woman I met 2 years ago just as she was going on maternity leave for the second time. For the sake of her privacy, let’s call her Lucy.

It’s almost a year now, since she went back to work. I asked her how it was going and how she was finding the transition back into working parenthood. The tone of the conversation dropped immediately. Things were “fine” she told me, but she’s now made the decision to hand in her notice.

Another tombstone in the career graveyard

I was speechless with shock. Now I know you’ve never met Lucy, but if you knew her you’d know instantly that this is a woman with a serious brain and an irresistible charm who is serious about her career. She would proudly describe herself as ambitious and has an intimidating stream of letters after her name that command the kind of respect I could only dream about.

“I’ve made the decision to hand in my notice”. Her words echoed through my mind and as she began to explain the events leading up to her decision, my blood started to boil.

Some facts about women who leave

I don’t need to go into the details of Lucy’s story, I simply want to draw your attention to the 4 critical facts about Lucy’s story:

  1.  Lucy is NOT leaving her high powered job to stay at home with her children, she is leaving to set up her own business.
  2. When Lucy came back from maternity leave it was with the intention of keeping her career on track and reaching the highest level of her company.
  3. Lucy loves what she does.
  4. Lucy loves being a parent.

Let’s be clear about what this means: Lucy wants to keep working and continue on her career trajectory and she wants to enjoy being a parent. When she walks out of the doors of her office for the last time she will be taking her talent, focus and her years of training and experience elsewhere.

The cost of losing female talent

A(nother) story like this is sobering news for any employer with a long term vision and a healthy respect for the numbers. It will cost a fortune to replace this lost talent. And this isn’t the only cost that organisations will suffer. When women have children, return to work, and then leave because they can’t make it work, this sends a very clear message to (a) those who are coming up through the ranks behind her; and (b) to the talent pool of the future.

The reason for the female talent drain

Research continues to support this view. Following their recent survey “Why Women in Business Leave”, leading global recruitment firm Ambition showed that the main reason women were leaving their company was career progression. Women were either going to work for a different company or leaving to take on a more senior role.

This means that the talent drain can’t be blamed on women having babies and wanting to stay at home, but on their dissatisfaction with the career progression opportunities in their current place of work. It’s time for companies to stop blaming motherhood for the talent drain and take responsibility for their role in driving talent away.

The implications for future female talent

In many of the professional service firms and other industries, women are now making up in the region of 50% of the talent pool at graduate recruitment level, and more and more women are evaluating their future employer based on that employer’s diversity credentials. When there are no women at the top of an organisation and, in the case of the 80% of women that are likely to have children in the future, there is no woman with a family holding a senior position, you are sending a very strong and very negative message to your future female talent pool: If you want a family in the future and want to progress in your career, you’re better off taking your talent elsewhere.

Retaining talent: a little goes a long way

Returning to Lucy. Her story, and those of many before her, is all the more tragic when you consider how easy it would have been for her employer to keep her, if only they had cared enough to try. In Lucy’s case, and in so many other women whose stories I have come to know, just 4 easy steps would have made all the difference:

4 super easy steps you can take to retain female talent after maternity

  1. Welcome her back

    So simple right? But I am shocked by the number of women returners who come back to the office after maternity with barely an acknowledgment from her line manager or boss. I am not suggesting you sit and ask her how her baby’s doing! Only that you show some sign that you noticed her absence, hope she is well and you’re happy to see her back.

  2. Keep up the conversation

    Whatever conversation you’ve had with her about her career track before she went on maternity leave, you need to continue that conversation when she returns. One of the most common causes of disillusionment in women returners that I have spoken to is the way the conversations about her future change. There are several interview based real life stories of this scenario in my book BabyProof Your Career.

  3. Treat her the same

    Stop assuming that just because she now has a family she is no longer committed or ambitious, even and especially if she asks for flexible working. In the majority of cases this is your assumption, not her reality. When you think like this all you’ll do is look for evidence to confirm your own prejudice and bias, and discount all the signs she is giving off to the contrary. Give her the benefit of the doubt. If she’s come this far, she’s earned it.

  4. Give her some support

Recognise that coming back to work after maternity is challenging and there’s a lot to deal with. True, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, then it’s hard to know, but either you can make the effort yourself or pay someone else to do it. If your budget allows it, get her a maternity coach. If it doesn’t, just ask her how it’s going every now and then and let her know you’re in her corner.

We value you and we are on your side

None of this is hard. The time and money cost to showing you care is a drop in the ocean compared to what you’ll be forking out on replacement talent. I’m not saying the above four steps will put an end to your talent drain once and for all. What I am saying is that a little bit of effort on the part of an employer goes a long way in the minds of a woman returner. It’s all about the message you send: we value you and we are on your side. If you’re doing your job right as an employer, this is the message you should be sending to every employee anyway.

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