Parental leave is still far from ideal here in the U.S. Only 13 percent of private sector workers have access to any paid leave and 40 percent of U.S. employees do not have job protection under FMLA. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a recent Indeed survey of the tech industry found that over 80 percent of women feel pressured to end their maternity leaves early and return to work. Diving deeper, the survey found that 38 percent cited a fear of losing credibility or value, 34 percent received direct pressure from colleagues or managers and 32 percent were simply afraid they would lose their jobs. Beyond the direct pressure from a colleague or manager, it’s important to recognize that the fear of losing credibility or your actual job is a real bias that impacts mothers across all industries.
A 2004 Harvard Business Review article back in 2004 highlighted the maternal wall, yet there have been minimal changes to the bias that impacts mothers in the workplace and thus contributes to the pressure felt by many mothers to cut their maternity leaves short. The fear of losing credibility or value is validated by studies showing that mothers are 50 percent less likely to be hired and on average earn $11,000 less. And for those fearing to lose their jobs, just read any of the countless stories shared on social media of new moms who’ve returned to work only find they had been replaced or pushed out of their roles. It’s no wonder that even while companies are promoting long parental leaves when it comes down to it the number of women actually taking maternity leave, that has remained almost completely unchanged over the last two decades.
So how do you actually face the decision as to whether or not to return early?
Jump into any online mom community forum and you’ll find a mom that has had a colleague or employer ask them to return to work earlier than expected. Immediately the question turns a question about whether or not the request is even legal. And while we can’t give legal advice, I will highlight that the answer is going to vary wildly from situation to situation. Many moms create their leaves out of various policies (paternal leave, vacation time, sick days, short-term disability, etc.) and laws are different state-by-state, but if you think that your employer is violating a law or policy in your situation, it’s important to reach out to an attorney and research your rights.
If it’s not a legal issue and you are feeling pressured by yourself or your employer to return to work early, then the course of action is to communicate.
1. Understand your needs.
Every woman is different, every baby is different, and every family situation is different. Whether you need to get back into the office for your sanity or you need more time to recover and/or bond with your baby, the key is to take a step back and understand what is ideal for you.
2. Make your intentions clear.
Maternal bias is tricky because while it can be blatant discrimination, it can also show up from the well-meaning manager who gives you “lighter projects” because they were trying to be “accommodating.” Again, this is all about communication. Do you want ramp up time? Is it better for you to dive right back into the thick of it? What will the impacts to the team be and is it possible to make adjustments if desired?
3. Listen — communication goes both ways.
It’s important to make your needs known, of course, but it’s also important to listen to the other side. If a manager is requesting that you cut your leave short, what’s the reason? Learn what’s happening on their side as well so you can make an informed decision as to whether or not it’s right and/or necessary for you to return early.
Regardless of whether or not you personally return to work early, it’s important to recognize that the reason so many mothers are feeling the pressure to return is because maternal bias is real and causes the fears that face new moms as they grapple with returning to work.
Mary Beth Ferrante is the founder of Live.Work.Lead., an organization dedicated to working with companies to retain top female talent by supporting women as they navigate their first critical year of becoming a new parent, through 1:1 and group programs. Live.Work.Lead. also provides training to managers on the maternal wall and how to better support their employees planning for and returning from parental leave.