As of 2023, just over a quarter of tech roles were filled by women – a statistic that has dropped by 2% over the past few years.

In more general terms, women are underrepresented in senior management roles compared to men, holding around 35% of managerial positions in the UK in 2020, according to the Office of National Statistics, while female board representation stood at just 37% in 2021, according to PwC. To redress this balance and keep hold of women in roles across industries, one thing is clear: we must make better provisions for what is, for many women, an important life event – having a baby.

Let’s be clear – workforce diversity is essential. McKinsey data finds that gender-diverse companies are 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability. At the same time, a report by MSCI shows that having women on a company’s board boosts productivity. Women offer a wealth of transferable skills that can enhance and balance workplaces, and motherhood often hones the ability to show patience, empathy and efficiency. But we need to foster an environment that values, nurtures and supports them on their unique career journeys, particularly regarding maternity leave.

The Impact of Maternity

Having a baby can throw a curveball at any career. However, in sectors like technology that continue to be dominated by men, it can be even more challenging for women to feel they are disadvantaging themselves by taking time out. And then there’s the return to work and the need for childcare and flexible working hours – how a company handles maternity leave and the return to work is a crucial element of whether women stay or hunt for something better suited to their new way of life.

In this article, we look at the proactive steps that companies can take to make the transition to life as a working mother more feasible and, in doing so, protect and maintain female input and representation.

Making the Return to Work… Work

Returning after maternity leave can be shaky, significantly disrupting a woman’s professional journey. Anyone taking six, nine or even 12 months off might feel a little rusty returning to a role. When combined with the frequent sleep-deprived brain fog of early parenthood, it can feel even harder to get back into the routine of a job that once felt second nature. Moreover, changes like these, regardless of the duration of the absence, can significantly impact team dynamics.

Easing the Transition

It is, therefore, essential for employers to help ease the transition by making the most of ‘keeping in touch’ (KIT) days accounted for under maternity law. Meant to facilitate a smoother return to work after maternity leave, they often don’t reach their full potential. The problem is that these are optional and follow no particular framework. This frequently means that they are not leveraged to full effect. Employers and employees alike need to make sure that proper use of KIT days is made to maintain or update knowledge and conserve or build team relationships. This requires planning and structure. But a more proactive utilisation of these days could make a marked difference, ensuring that returning mothers don’t feel alienated and instead feel more integrated and aligned when re-entering the work scene.

Flexible Working

To make matters worse, the resistance towards flexible working schedules can add to the stress of juggling demanding roles and the commitments of motherhood. Returning to full-time work while ensuring a healthy work-life balance that enables family time at the start and end of the day can be challenging. Even finding childcare that fits with working hours can be hard, especially if also expected to commute to and from an office. Factor in a sick child or school holidays further down the line, and sometimes the pressure of a full-time job can feel like too much.

Flexibility is, therefore, key. Most mums would say that their ability to juggle the complexities and demands of family and work life is a core strength. If an employer can make this juggling act even easier, then it’s likely that they will reap the rewards in terms of hard work and loyalty. Moreover, they will benefit from transferable skills that can positively contribute to any working environment where project, team and budget management all feature.

By incorporating a healthy mix of flexible working policies, from working from home when needed to hours that might deviate from pre-children days, it’s entirely possible to make new mums feel like they can be both a present parent and a high-performing member of the team.

Benefit Revolution

One feasible solution that could significantly ease the transition back to work may be a childcare allowance offered as a working benefit. While the UK Government’s tax-free childcare scheme means that working parents can get up to £2,000 a year for each child to help with the costs of childcare, the price of a nursery place for just three or four days per week can represent the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment. Having companies offset part of these costs could massively help encourage more women to re-join the workforce after maternity leave, supporting gender diversity and continuity in the workforce. Many organisations offer healthcare policies – why not childcare?

Mind the Gap

Sadly, “the motherhood penalty” is now a widely recognised sociological term to describe the disadvantages that working mothers face in relation to both childless women and male counterparts. The most common example is the pay and benefits gap that women might experience. But perceived competence, dependability and job commitment – often perpetuated by the disproportionate share of childcare mothers take on compared to fathers – can all feature and potentially hamper career progression, exacerbating the pay gap.

Although this is hard to legislate against, the fact that the motherhood penalty might be subconsciously applied is something we can start to inform and educate against. If employers are armed with the facts and can consciously examine decisions relating to new hires, promotions and more, we can begin to level the playing field.

The Power of Role Models and Mentors

Not feeling as though you’re the ‘only one’ as a new mum starting or returning from maternity leave can be very beneficial. Having the seasoned counsel of mentors with similar journeys can significantly empower women. At the same time, the absence of female leadership can lead to a lack of relatability and foster a mentorship gap, hindering women’s progression. It is, therefore, more critical than ever to continue the storytelling of women already breaking barriers and leading the way. Interacting with other working parents, sharing successes and challenges, and finding common ground will help ensure a supportive and understanding environment.

Encouraging Prosperous and Inclusive Workplaces

To address the underrepresentation of women, particularly in male-oriented industries and senior management, we must take a harder look at maternity leave and return to work policies and implement proactive measures to retain and empower women in the workforce. Initiatives such as optimising maternity leave transition programs, embracing flexible working arrangements, and considering childcare benefits as part of employment packages can make a substantial difference.

Moreover, combating biases like the motherhood penalty requires concerted efforts in education and awareness within organisations. By fostering environments that value and support working mothers, we not only promote gender diversity and equality but also harness the valuable contributions and skills that women bring to the table, ultimately leading to more prosperous and inclusive workplaces.

Head of Product at Tradebyte | + posts

Becca Cooke is Head of Product at direct-to-consumer (DTC) e-commerce platform Tradebyte, where she is responsible for overseeing teams in the planning, development and execution of all Tradebyte products and services. Becca has a deep understanding of every stage in the product lifecycle, from vision and strategy to UX research and design to product management.

As a seasoned product leader, Becca has more than a decade’s experience working across various technology solutions and digital services, including SaaS applications, middleware solutions and e-commerce platforms.