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Improving your employability after a baby

By Amelia Harris 2 min read
Wednesday, August 22, 2018

New mums who keep in touch with their workplace while on maternity leave are more hireable and less likely to experience unconscious bias, research shows.

Newbornlife is often filled with broken sleep, juggling regular feeding and naps and copious amounts of washing, meaning work can often be the last thing on a mother’s mind, but research has found that staying connected to work has significant career benefits, particularly if taking a longer maternity leave period.

Researchers from Canada and Australia surveyed 558 Canadian employees and asked them to review a job application for a marketing manager role where the candidate had taken a year of maternity leave.

Survey participants were randomly presented with one of four scenarios:

  • the would-be marketing manager had used a keeping in touch program while on maternity leave
  • the keeping in touch program existed but the would-be marketing manager hadn’t used it while on maternity leave
  • there was no information about whether the keeping in touch program had been used while on maternity leave
  • there was no reference to a keeping in touch program

Agency perceptions, job commitment and hireability were the highest when the candidate had used the keeping in touch program while on maternity leave.

While economists have looked at maternity leave length and career impact, the study, published in the prestigious Journal of Applied Psychology, was the first of its kind to investigate why women often experienced penalties after taking a longer maternity leave, and strategies to overcome this.

The research found that these women were often perceived as being less career-orientated and assertive and, therefore, less committed to their job and less attractive to hire.

Melbourne's RMIT University's School of Management lecturer and paper co-author Dr Raymond Trau is an expert in workplace diversity. Dr Raymond said the research reinforced a catch-22 situation women often faced when taking maternity leave. That is, spending time with their baby versus pursuing their career.

“When a woman takes a longer period of maternity leave, such as a year off work, they’re often perceived as caring and nurturing, but less ambitious and driven, whereas, when a woman takes one month off they’re often perceived as ambitious, assertive, driven and committed to their career,” Dr Raymond said. “Women who take these longer periods of maternity leave can often be penalised. The obvious forms of penalty are not being hired and not being promoted. The less obvious form is not having the opportunity to advance their career through training and development.

“Our findings show women are more hireable and perceived as more committed if they have a shorter period of time off.”

One solution to overcome perceptions could be keeping in touch programs. Many companies offer paid parental leave, while eligible Australian employees who are the primary carer of a newborn or adopted child can also get up to 18 weeks’ paid parental leave at the minimum wage from the Federal Government.

There’s little awareness eligible Australian parents can access up to 10 paid keeping in touch days for attending conferences, training and planning days while on unpaid parental leave.

Dr Raymond said women could use keeping in touch programs as an image management strategy to minimise bias from colleagues, managers and employers.

“There’s often all kinds of biases—sub-conscious and unconscious—towards women who have longer maternity leave, and keeping in touch programs can help minimise them. These biases may come from people directly impacted by a woman going on maternity leave,” he said.

“We found the woman who participated in a keeping in touch program in the research scenario was perceived as more hireable because she was engaged with her work and committed to her career, even though she wasn’t currently working.”

Source: RMIT media release

Amelia Harris is the senior media and communications advisor for RMIT University.