January 25th, 2012 | 1:00 pm

Transition Coaching: Is It Time for a New Approach to Working Mothers?

filed under Expert Answers

GeraldineGallacherContributed by Geraldine Gallacher, founder of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, London

The United States and United Kingdom share many common bonds and approaches to business. However, in the area of maternity leave and support for working mothers we have widely differing views.

I recently spent time in New York to assess how US enterprises approach the business of executive coaching – specifically in the support of women preparing for maternity leave, during their leave and through the process of returning to work. I was expecting to find more similarities than differences, but what I found was interestingly the reverse. I should make it clear that I’m not criticising either approach. But I do feel that we can learn from each other. A quick look at the small number of women on the boards of major companies on both sides of the Atlantic (approximately 15% in the US and 13% in the UK) is enough to prove that both systems have a long way to go yet to achieve their goals. My other caveat is that whilst I’ll talk here in generalities, women are of course all different, with differing circumstances, approaches and ambitions, and so solutions in each case have to be tailored.

The most obvious difference is that in the US, there is no federal law regarding paid maternity leave. In the UK, legislation enables women to take up to a year off and still have the right to come back to a similar or equivalent job. Those wishing to return sooner can come back to the same job after six months. Women in the UK are eligible for statutory maternity pay up to nine months. In the US, if you want to stay out longer than three months, application can be made under the Disability Leave policy.

Maternity in the UK and the US

In the UK, maternity coaching has become almost a standard benefit among leading firms due to the high proportion of women leaving and resulting low levels of representation at board or partner level. However, with board statistics in the US and the UK more or less even, the UK focus on maternity coaching is yet to show a direct impact at the highest levels. It is though a long-term investment, with pay off expected in the long run. We are certainly seeing improved retention rates resulting in the UK.

In the US, diversity is clearly a major consideration for businesses, but schemes that target women specifically are not encouraged. The notion of maternity coaching is instead wrapped up in a wider transition coaching concept. That said, the majority of people in such programmes are going through maternity transition. My impression is that high-achieving American women are having children and getting back to work as soon as possible, so that their work is as uninterrupted as possible. Indeed the achievement of gender parity rather than diversity seems more appealing to them. I think that in the UK, businesses are more willing to acknowledge characteristic gender differences, and to see value in those differences. In my experience, women need, and benefit from, different types of support than men.

The American approach to maternity seems to be facilitated by a much better supply of childcare provision than in the UK, where there are widespread concerns about the availability and prohibitive cost of adequate childcare.

Another key area of difference is attitude to flexible working. Around half of our UK maternity coachees go back to work on some kind of flexible basis. Half of this is via informal arrangements but an increasing number of women are applying formally for flexible work. Flexible working seems much less acceptable in the US where reluctance to request it stems from general concern about being seen to be taking advantage of family-friendly benefits, as this might indicate a lack of commitment. One executive I spoke with talked about women in her organisation being nervous of even accessing the page on the intranet which outlines the company policy to flexible working lest it be tracked back to them.

Working toward Retention

I was struck by a level of frustration in New York, certainly among banking organisations, that their diversity policies weren’t working and that ‘diversity fatigue’ had set in. Women with limited available time were opting to drop out of all-female networking events in favour of mixed ones as the networking opportunities were deemed more fruitful. All-female events seem to appeal to younger female executives while more experienced women adopt a more cynical approach to them.

There is real interest in the Returnship® program concept being pioneered by Goldman Sachs, designed to attract back female employees who may have previously left to have children. I think this idea has great potential to attract back skilled former employees rather than having to train up new talent, and Goldman Sachs has certainly claimed considerable success with it.

Recognising the full value of female employees matches the general move from command and control to matrix management in business. This move to more empathy, more collaboration and less ego definitely favours women. Mastery of craft and connectivity, rather than personal drive, ambition and competition will denote success in the future. Women tend to be naturally good at being supportive, collaborating and communicating with others, and sharing credit for success. These are all qualities that will be needed in highly networked future organisations.

There is much still to be done in both of our countries to improve the opportunities for women to fulfill both work and family ambitions. I believe the emphasis should be on policies to attract and retain women, rather than to try and ‘fix’ them or conform to more male parameters. Companies that do not adequately address how best to retain and support their female talent are putting themselves at a clear disadvantage. Tailored executive coaching can play a central role in addressing this.

1 comment

  1. Anke

    Hi Geraldine,

    thanks for opening up the discussion! It’s really hard to know what approach is best as you say! I feel that the American approach is better for women in terms of career advancement, but I am not sure it is really best for the child or even for happiness of the family and the mother. Work and career are just one part of life.

    As for opportunities to fulfill both work and family ambitions, I get the impression that people often forget that men are faced with the same trade-offs. What we need is not necessarily for companies to give special privileges to women, but to design their culture in such a way that they enable all staff to have a great career AND to have a happy family life. A lot of men struggle with this too and make costly sacrifice to advance in their careers. If companies had more flexible policies, they would make life easier for working mums but also enable their male staff to enjoy family life. Work-life balance is not a women’s issue. And spending time with your children is not just a mums’ issue. Many companies forget that.