The fears that women face about taking a career break (and four things we can do to alleviate these)

With New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, commencing her six weeks’ maternity leave, I thought it was an appropriate 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 taking time out for maternity leave and the effect this will have on their career – of those surveyed 70% 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. After my third child, I went back to work 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? I didn’t want increasing pay gaps and decreasing career prospects to become my reality.

It was hard enough that I was a youngish female working in an industry predicated by executives representative of the typical demographic– not many C-suites or Boards of large corporates had loads of thirty-something women on them!  This gnawing worry about taking career breaks to have children just contributed to my feeling that I was somehow ‘not on an even keel’ with my male counterparts.

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. 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.

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 leaders 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

While Jacinda prepares to embark on this next journey, it is a fantastic time for us to start an ongoing, and at times tough, conversation about equality in the workplace. It is a leader’s role to ensure you are empowering women to make the choice that is best for them – whether that is career or family or both.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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