Comment If you want new parents to progress, start the conversation now

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Returning to work after having a baby should be a time of excitement, but for many it’s a source of dread. Millions of women have seen promising careers stall after having children. The same parental penalty often faces the increasing number of fathers who want to play a more active role during these crucial early years.

The career cul-de-sac can be as costly for businesses as the people they employ, as they fail to realise the full potential from all the training and experience built up before employees have children. Possible future leaders may become frustrated and leave to join a competitor. And as gender pay gaps come under the spotlight, it’s worth remembering that one of the biggest contributors to the pay gap is new mums’ difficulties in progressing up the career ladder.

Should parents have to face this stark choice between giving 100 per cent to their children or their careers? Or if they want to balance both, does this inevitably have to be a juggling act? No. I see countless instances where dialogue and understanding between employers and employees have enabled talented professionals to keep their careers on track while staying true to their priorities as good parents.

Flexibility in how people work and the technology that supports this are clearly important. But in many ways, the most critical element is an adult relationship in which employees are trusted to meet their professional and parental responsibilities in ways that best suit them, while their manager backs them in front of clients and colleagues.

Yet the necessary dialogue is all too rare. How can we make it easier and more productive? Experience highlights four key priorities:

1. Get in the same room

Get people on parental leave together with the board over a sandwich lunch to share their ideas for the organisation. The benefits for parents include access to senior leaders, while having babies in the same room as the board is bound to raise awareness and change perspectives.

2. Make it a line manager priority

Train your managers in how to have conversations before parents go on leave and before they return. These should be free from assumptions and address common concerns head on including management anxiety about saying the wrong thing and parents’ fears about committing to what is in effect an informal contract.

3. Harness data to drive progress

Don’t just measure retention, look at rates of progression and the impact on gender pay. This can help identify potential barriers to advancement and target any necessary interventions. It can often work well if you single out a particular division to test interventions and their impact.

4. Get the word back

Encourage a new parent to do their own research on what other parents experience and what hinders them. They can then present this qualitative research to the board.

How do you know if this is working? Parents moving into leadership roles are like canaries in the mine. If there aren’t any – because they’ve got stuck, gone in another direction or left altogether – you’ll know there is a problem and the message will quickly get back to employees.

Let’s break with the past. Parenthood and professional ambition can support each other rather than being in perpetual conflict. And to break that vicious cycle, we need to talk and treat each other as adults.

Verena Hefti is founder of Leaders Plus

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