How pro maternity and paternity is your organisation?

Nikki Bartlett

Nikki Bartlett

Having worked in learning and development for twelve years, owned her own business for six years and had two beautiful children in amongst it all, Nikki Bartlett found herself constantly amazed at her clients who managed to work in corporate life and have a family.


This curiosity resulted in her undertaking research amongst 150 mums, line managers and HR professionals that showed that the approach to Maternity in the UK varied massively, the potential outcomes misunderstood and seen as a cost rather than an investment.

This was the catalyst for the creation of Maternity Unlimited, an organisational development programme with the aim to nurture organisations approach to maternity and retain all parenting talent.

When talking to Nikki she clearly practices what she preaches, she is highly passionate about the launch of Maternity Unlimited with a clear focus of current issues in maternity that need addressing. Nikki believes that with the rise in legislation around maternity and paternity that some serious changes need to happen if organisations want to retain their male and female talent.

After negotiating the issue of work life balance with her husband and business partner Nick, the needs of both her young children, her family and the dogs, Nikki started to explore how other families dealt with the family responsibilities. Nikki aimed to understand how women dealt with the transition from working professional, to mum, then becoming a working professional mum and what support they received along the way. What became clear was that these women had vastly different experiences and many women often suffered both internally and externally with their feelings about whether they were being a good mother and a good professional.

As Nikki’s interest grew, her attention began to focus on understanding how maternity policies were used within the workplace and the effect on both the individual and the organisation of becoming pregnant at work. As the scope of the research grew, participant companies began asking what we were doing not just for organisations, but for line managers as well. As the research result emerged, the team at Nikki’s company, Zest Learning, began to create and test innovative Learning and Development Interventions designed to offer organisations a holistic answer to their parenting strategies. Maternity Unlimited was born.

Key findings from some of the research that was conducted involved the influence and impact Line managers have on whether women view their maternity transition as good or bad. Other factors include the woman’s initial level of self confidence; how long she’s out of the workplace and how the organisation has supported its female employees in the first place. Unfortunately when we talk with people in detail about our findings they are often amazed that organisations aren’t doing more for women.

Nikki says that “People are the very life blood of every organisation; in fact, organisations in their own right don’t exist; if there were no people there would be no organisation so we need to look after them!”

Surprisingly many books aim to advise mothers focusing around their infant, a ‘how to guide’, when what women also want is a ‘how to support me guide’ when it comes to helping raise awareness of: why they react in certain ways, why they feel guilty, how they can rebuild their new self, especially for first time Mum who truly becomes a new person, and they’ve had two very quick changes of identity which often compounds the concerns of “am I doing the right thing”.

As Nikki says, “This is a question I am still asking myself now! Especially at times when my children are ill, my husband and I are exhausted because we’ve had about four hours sleep and we’re both frustrated because I have to work from home (to look after Jess) which means I am unable to be at the team meeting scheduled that day. So do I feel guilty because I’m thinking about work before the welfare of my child? Do I feel frustrated? The answer to all of these is yes, momentarily. Then I use some of the practical knowledge I have to reframe the day and I get on with being as efficient as I can.

However I’m in the fortunate position that I know that I’m normal. I’ve read research and I’ve done lots of research, I’ve developed practical solutions to work through these challenges so that I can be at peace with myself and my decision and that doesn’t make me a bad person, or weak or unprofessional or uncaring it means I’m normal!”

When we considered large organisations, they put a large amount of responsibility on the line manager. This individual must be an effective and supportive conduit of what the organisation is culturally trying to achieve. They are the mouth piece for corporate culture, they represent hierarchy, and their attention to processes must be seamless if people strategies are to work.

In terms of dealing with maternity, the research demonstrated that managers are unsure of how they can and can’t treat their staff for fear of overloading them or getting embroiled in diversity do’s and don’ts. Managers tended to back right off and deal with only what is necessary for the organisation rather than address the individual on a one to one basis. As the employee fades from the managers everyday attentions, the individual becomes less aware of what is happening in the business and whilst on maternity leave often have limited access to news and developments so their return can seem quite bewildering.

By educating both line managers and the women who are pregnant or returning from maternity leave, it is possible to change the organisational approach towards maternity. Managers can learn to deal with the situation effectively and are able to support and including women in their return to work.

The issue of the transition into parenting and the necessary balance is an issue that is becoming increasingly irrelevant to a specific gender as the political and social will of the UK changes. However, maternity still takes precedence over paternity as the majority of people expected to be in control of the work life negotiation are women and the pace of change is very slow. Paternity is an increasingly important and recognised people strategy, but just how much influence legislation will have on behaviour will be tested in April 2011 when shared paternity leave is established.

Research conducted by Maternity Unlimited found that 90.7% of the women questioned were only offered the standard legal requirements and little else. If companies want to retain their female talent they will have to inspire them to return to work.

Getting policies that work practically is another big challenge. In other words, not just a document on a shelf to be referred to but policies that are visible demonstrated through behaviour everyday in the working environment. Here Line Managers become critical. We also know that on the budget scale this area is not the priority. We have many organisations say to us, if we had the money we’d be doing this tomorrow. The further up the scale it goes the less priority it has and this is probably because the further up and organisation structure you go the more male dominated it becomes until your reach the board which are usually predominately men. At Boardroom level this kind of initiative has limited perceived value as it does directly relate to making money.

Over the next few months the team at Maternity Unlimited will be working hard to develop options that are practical and demonstrate that benefits of all kinds are only around the corner. Putting your head in the sand and hoping that Maternity and Paternity will go away is not an option. Engaging with legislation and planning your strategies now will enable you to embrace the possibilities that await you and be ahead of the game.

Nikki Bartlett
Chartered MCIPD, MAC
Managing Director
Maternity Unlimited

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