Empower working mothers with supportive policies for a balanced work-life integration to retain female talent.

5 ways to retain your female employees after maternity leave

Empower working mothers with supportive policies for a balanced work-life integration to retain female talent.

As a venture capitalist, many portfolio company CEOs and leadership teams I work with have asked me, “How do I retain my female talent? They always leave after having a baby.” I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, and after recently having my second baby, I’ve come up with five suggestions that will help you attract and retain your talent.

Transitioning back to work after having a baby is a significant challenge for women as they navigate their new identities as mothers and professionals. The struggle continues as they strive to balance motherhood with work responsibilities.

The thing to know about women leaving the workforce is this: most don’t want to leave. Most women want to both work and care for their kids. In a recent parent-specific survey, mothers were asked, “Which best describes your mentality around combining a career and motherhood under current circumstances?” A quarter of the women surveyed answered that they were “Frustrated—I want both but need a new arrangement at work to make it realistic.” Companies that offer supportive solutions may find the key to retaining their talented female employees.

Throughout my maternity leave, I found myself constantly asking these questions and doing calculations:

  • How much is my salary after tax? And then after childcare? Is $X really worth it, given someone else will see my baby more than I will?
  • If I go into the office five days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., how many awake hours will I be able to see my baby? Is that enough to justify working?
  • How many years will it take me to get to my next promotion? Does my company really value me enough for me to go back to work?
  • Will taking my full maternity leave keep me from progressing at my company? Will being a mom keep me from progressing?
  • Do I really want to leave my baby so soon? Am I ready to go back to work? Am I abandoning my baby?

Lucky for me, I work in a small firm that encourages an open dialogue on what will make work life easier for working mothers. As I asked myself the questions above, I found answers that my firm could implement and make returning to work a no-brainer. I realize you may not be able to implement all of my suggestions, but I encourage you to consider each one. Implementing some or all of these will help you attract and retain your female talent.

1. Show that you value her at work and make her career path clear.

I know I am valued at home, and my baby needs me at home. That is very obvious. What may not be obvious is how needed she is at work. You need to convince your female employees that they are valued just as much at work as they are at home. Show them you need them there and that they can be successful at work. If you do not successfully show your female talent that they are valued, they will go to where they are valued—whether that’s home or a company that’s better at showing them.

Not all companies, especially startups, have predictable career paths—and that’s OK. If you are at a company with predictable career paths, show your female talent how they can progress and grow at your company. “In one year, if you do X, Y and Z, you will be a manager. In 3 years, you could move up from manager to VP,” etc. Laying out a career path gives predictability that brings more structure and less anxiety into the decision to return to work. Without a career path, there is an open-ended question of being valued.

If you are at a startup that does not have predictable career paths, ensure the women in your company that you see the value they are adding. Let them know they have room to grow and progress within your company, and remind them of this often, especially before maternity leave and as they come back.

"In a recent parent-specific survey, mothers were asked, 'Which best describes your mentality around combining a career and motherhood under current circumstances?' A quarter of the women surveyed answered that they were 'Frustrated—I want both but need a new arrangement at work to make it realistic.'"

2. Give her a generous maternity leave and offer extended leave.

If my firm asked me to return to work after two months, it would have made my decision for me. I wouldn’t have been able to leave my baby that young, and it would have forced my decision to stay home.

So, what’s the right amount of maternity leave? That’s hard to know, and every woman is different. Here are some things to think about:

Every woman recovers at their own pace after having a baby. With my first, it took more than three months to start feeling like I had a handle on motherhood and could actually breathe. With my second baby, it only took a month. For a lot of women, it takes 6–12 months. Ideally, each mother would be able to choose for themselves when it’s best for them to come back to work. There are creative ways to help women return to their timeline, like unpaid extended leave and the example below from David Blake.

David Blake is the founder and CEO of Degreed and the founder of BookClub. He has a different approach to parental leave that has worked well for him. David has never had a female leave as a function of having a baby, and his philosophy revolves around the idea that there is no exact “right” amount of maternity leave but that the ideal time is up to each family. Degreed’s parental policy is a fully paid, unlimited family leave. Yes, unlimited. You get a salary, paid as usual, for three months. After that, Degreed stops paying salary, and it accrues as a bonus that you get once you have returned for twice the amount of time you were on leave. David trusts his employees to know when it’s right for them to return to work.

Studies show that maternity leave should be 12 weeks at a minimum, but ideally no less than 14 weeks. I’m not here to tell you what the right amount of maternity leave is, but if you ask an employee to come back too early, chances are she won’t stay very long.

Note: Keep capacity management in mind with all parental leave. Parental leave becomes a burden on your team when you don’t have a buffer in place during parental leave. The best-case scenario is hiring a temp worker. Make sure workloads are balanced to avoid your employees resenting the person going on leave.

3. Give ramp-up days to help with the transition back to work.

In your parental leave, provide a transition period of ramp-up days for employees to slowly return to work. Ramp-up periods will allow your female employees to slowly ease back into work and gain confidence as full-time mothers.

With my first baby, I was nervous about returning to work and didn’t want to be pulled into work full-time before I was fully ready. I was given 16 weeks of maternity leave with a 4-week transition period. The transition period was a game-changer for me. I added one day to each week I worked, and five weeks after my transition period started, I was working full-time again. It allowed me to test out my childcare situation and gain confidence in my ability to work full-time and be a great mother.

Amazon offers a “Ramp Back Program” that gives parents a reduced schedule over eight weeks immediately following parental leave. Another example is a ramp-up of a two-day workweek, then a three-day workweek, then a four-day workweek.

Help your employees adjust to their new schedule and the demands of being a working parent. On-ramping gives them time to figure it out.

4. Add a childcare benefit.

In a recent survey of 9,000 women, 70 percent of women said the cost of child care was too high to pay. Most families are paying over $1,500 every month for child care. It’s unaffordable for most families. Working women are constantly calculating their salary after tax minus child care costs. Is that leftover money really worth handing your kid to someone else?

Subsidizing part of child care removes that calculation.

Not only will you retain more women when you provide child care as a benefit, but you can also receive federal tax credits for your business by providing a “Child Care Credit.” Some states offer tax incentives, as well.

5. Offer flexible working hours.

A recent study found that 67 percent of women who are not working by choice would be likely to go back to work if they had flexible hours. I’m not talking about part-time hours, but flexible work hours.

Trust her to work the hours that are best for her situation. What this looks like for one person might be completely different from the next. It might be important for someone to pick up their child from school every day. This means they might come into work early and leave early or leave early and work late into the night. Having this flexibility allows a parent to know what time is best for them to work instead of the classic work hours. Flexible work hours can make a big difference for female employees and can be the make-or-break between staying at your company or leaving.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and that you can get creative in implementing some or all of these into your companies. Gender equity helps all boats rise, and I hope your female employees choose to stay and grow in your company.

Suz Duke is a principal on the investment team at Pelion Venture Partners. Pelion invests in Seed and Series A software startups across the United States.