Ahhh, the inimitable scent of a newborn baby. The delicious cuddles. The teeny, tiny fingers and toes. And the outfits! Ohhhh, the gorgeous mini-me outfits to die for.

There’s nothing quite like baby love. That head-over-heels; out of control; I love- this baby so much I can’t breathe feeling that comes with having children.

A new baby brings unspeakable joy and imbues you with wisdom you didn’t know you had.

A new baby tests your stamina, your commitment and your willpower.

It also wreaks havoc with your hormones, in many cases completely shifts your priorities and, if you let it, has the potential to destroy or severely hamper your career progress.

As a mum to a gorgeous, spirited, happy 3 year old boy, I know these things, from experience.

So, if you are a new mum, or about to become one soon, or even if you have plans in the way distant future, you might wonder, how do you keep your career on track after a baby?

And if you are a manager of women, you might wonder, how do I make sure that I retain talented women, and balance that with the needs of the business at the same time?

Whichever camp you fall in, you are not alone in your thoughts. Maternity transition is fast becoming a major issue for employers who want to maintain their female talent pipeline, and for women who feel that a successful career in the corporate world and a baby and incompatible. Impending board quotas and political and social pressure mean that companies are increasingly seeking ways to keep their female workforce engaged and on a career path.

Last year I read a survey of 2500 professional women across a range of ages and sectors published by a UK firm specialising in female talent management. The survey focused on the career “pinch points” women face during their working life. The two clear leading issues stated were career crossroads (50%) and maternity transition (45%).  68% of working parents identified maternity transition as the leading pinch point in their career – and interestingly for women in their 20s and 30s without children, it still featured prominently as the 3rd highest pinch point.

Without doubt, Australian women face the same pinch points.

Smart organisations will recognise this and start policies and procedures now to support not just the maternity transitions happening right now, but the preparation for those of Generation Y, who are already taking this issue into consideration in their career choices.

The other point to be made here is that women also have a responsibility for managing their career pre, during and after pregnancy.

In the workshops I run for women and managers dealing with maternity transition, I explain that this issue has to be dealt with by flexibility and understanding on both sides. Any successful relationship requires work and communication, and at this period in a woman’s career clear communication is more crucial than ever.

In essence then there is a three-pronged approach to a successful maternity transition:

  1. Organisational support – there must be flexible work procedures in place and they must be REAL options, not simply a policy in name only to serve legal purposes. Leading from the top is essential here – the culture of an organisation will determine the success or otherwise of maternity transition policies and procedures.
  2. Managers of the women in maternity transition – they must also be engaged in the process from an early stage, and supported through coaching and training in how to deal with the career paths of women (and men) who desire flexibility.
  3. The employee in transition – employees must be provided with support and career (and personal) development opportunities in the form of coaching, mentoring and sponsorship.

In terms of women approaching maternity leave, here are some strategies that can be employed by both managers and the women themselves to assist in a successful transition.

Communication is king

Don’t be afraid to talk about career plans. Taking into account all relevant legalities aside, the sooner you can open the conversation the better. Knowing where both parties stand in terms of career opportunities and priorities makes situations more manageable in the future.

I recommend initiating the conversation, whether you are an employee, or the manager, around 2-3 months prior to maternity leave.

Planning is key

Out of sight is often out of mind. If you are a senior employee building a brand or a business in the workplace, consider how the relationship with key clients developed by you will be impacted. A transition communications plan will allow for you to be kept informed in the way you want to be of any major developments in your team or with your clients, and will make you feel more included when you do come back to work.

No woman knows exactly how she will feel about her career once her baby is born – and subsequent children may alter your plans even more. But where possible, I encourage you to consider your future. Working 3 days a week may be fine for 1-2 years, but what happens when your child goes to school? Is it better to work 4 days now, with a view to being able to keep your long-term career on track? Only you can answer that – it will come down to working out your priorities and the realities of your situation.

In the same vein, I’d encourage managers not to be fearful of having these conversations with women in your team. In my opinion, honest conversations about career progression are an integral part of being a strong manager and a mentor to your staff.

Take the lead

Many women are scared of speaking up on this subject. In the last workshop for employees that I ran, around 75% of the room (all 6-8 months pregnant) had not had any discussion around their career upon return from maternity leave, including whether they would be seeking flexible work arrangements

Why? Because they felt they would be disadvantaged in some way by speaking up. Many believed they would be actively sidelined by saying they intended to come back part-time any time prior to around 2 weeks before their return!

How can this lead to a healthy, progressive career path for women? And how can this be good for business?

In the last week I have spoken with 4 different women, all in their 30’s, all in professional careers in corporate, and all fired from their role while they were on maternity leave.

The scariest fact? Not one of them was surprised that it happened. They had all seen it happen to colleagues and friends before them. It would appear it’s a reasonably common occurrence in Corporate Australia.

I’d love to say I have the answer to that startling reality, but I don’t. Ultimately it comes down to tighter legislation and better protection for pregnant women. Australia is far behind other OECD countries when it comes to supporting pregnant women, as we know.

But it also comes down to individual women, their managers, and organisations taking responsibility and starting what may seem like a difficult conversation pre-maternity leave, but what is a truly pivotal moment in the maternity transition.

I am of the strong opinion that is entirely possible to have a successful, fulfilling and engaged career, be that in corporate or running your own business AND have a fantastic family life.

But the stark reality is that it takes determination, planning and flexibility – by ALL parties involved in the maternity transition process.

For more information on how you as an individual, or as a manager, can make maternity transition more successful, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

I have also recently written an article for The Law Society of New South Wales for its female lawyer members, on how to manage their own career after transition. You can read it here.

This article was first posted in Gloss, the online magazine of Little Black Dress Group 

If you’d like to learn more about how you can take ownership of your career to allow you to create a career you love, be rewarded for what you do and take control of your future, you might want to join me for a LIVE and FREE workshop, where I’ll show you exactly how to do just that. Click here to find out more.