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Jane Johnson

Careering into Motherhood


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Why ‘fake flexibility’ just won’t cut it for working mums

Cultural change is needed to free the potential of working mothers; eliminating bias and encouraging flexibility.

Parenthood and workplaces still don’t mix. 

Organisations are struggling with recruitment and retention and yet, new evidence suggests organisations don’t understand or appreciate the value of working mothers. With International Women’s Day on the horizon, it’s time to ask why.

New research among more than 2,100 working mothers found that half believed their chances of promotion had been negatively impacted just by asking for flexible work arrangements.

They also pointed to problems with ‘fake’ flexibility: organisations offer reduced working hours but expect the same outputs. Meanwhile, returning mothers are just as ambitious, or more ambitious, than they were before.

Reaching full potential

This matters for all employers in terms of freeing the potential of female employees, making sure that all their people have the opportunity to contribute all they can: their skills and energy and ambition. 

But for many it’s also an urgent issue of recruitment and retention of working mums: a large proportion of the workforce that can become demotivated, sidelined, lost altogether. Office for National Statistics figures showed that 27.6 per cent of women were not working in the UK because of family commitments in the summer of 2022, compared to 7.4 per cent of men.

So what are returning mums really looking for from HR and their workplace?

Important benefits

Working mothers have particular needs and interests when it comes to a rewards package. 

Asked to choose the three benefits most likely to make them join or stay with an employer:

  • 40 per cent flagged the importance of having the option of working from home
  • 38 per cent a pay rise of 10-15 per cent
  • 27 per cent private healthcare
  • 25 per cent financial support for wraparound care (before or after school childcare and holiday camps)
  • 24 per cent an enhanced holiday entitlement
  • 13 per cent emergency nursery/childcare cover

They also pointed to a lack of tailored coaching support to help them rethink and re-engage with their career plans before returning to work as a mum. Only around one-fifth were offered maternity coaching by their employer.

There needs to be more attention to job design based around outputs rather than strict timetables

Coaching for confidence

Mums are looking for coaching before they go on maternity leave and when they return to help with issues around confidence, establishing new focus and motivation and achieving a new balance.

Offering flexible working isn’t seen as being a solution in itself. It can simply mean mums finding themselves under additional pressures to take on more roles at work and home. 

At the same time, employers often don’t consider the implications for resourcing overall and how the work is done, expecting their staff to fill in the gaps. (“I reduced my hours to four days a week but it didnt work,” said one working mum as part of the research. “Workload was the same so I worked a very long four day week and weekend to make up for not working and not having childcare on a Friday. Need to look to increase time size to accommodate individuals working reduced hours, not expect them to manage the job in less time and get paid less.”)

There needs to be more attention to job design based around outputs rather than strict timetables (“Designing jobs better so it’s easier to work flexibly. And the culture fully supporting this rather than saying working parents are supported but then expecting things which mean they can’t work flexibly. Making things more about output rather than bums on seats — and ensuring expected output is realistic”).

Mums are looking for coaching before they go on maternity leave and when they return to help with issues around confidence

Cultural change required

For genuine change to take place, there needs to be a foundation of cultural change, argue working mums. That means taking an active stance against the kinds of bias women routinely experience on their return to work: including role models among senior leadership  around good work/life balance, and encouraging more men to take paternity leave and work flexibly in order to make flexible working and needing to change work routines due to parent responsibilities more the norm.

There are specific, practical measures that would help with the work/life balance challenges being faced. The most common recommendations were:

“Be open to hours of work being done outside of normal business hours, i.e. complete emails and tasks from after children have gone to bed.”

“Options to buy holiday for more parental leave.”

“Mothers with primary aged children should have protected rights to be able to work flexibly to care for them, i.e. emergency days off for sickness or ability to wfh to cover school events.”

“Flexi time, tailored working patterns, possibility to work remotely on short notice.”

“Maternity pay in line with sick pay for a start. Better paternity leave with the option for the male to take properly paid paternity leave instead of the woman – crazy that you get more on a pension than you do on statutory maternity pay!”

“Put structured return to work plans in place for parents returning to work after maternity leave.”

“Unlimited holiday is a really good idea as well as less stigma about home working.”

Jane Johnson, Founder, Careering into Motherhood. The full findings of the Life as a Working Mother 2023 report can be downloaded from

If you enjoyed this, read: How HR can support LGBTQ+ parents in the workplace


One Response

  1. Nice post. I was checking
    Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed.

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Jane Johnson


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