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Could maternity coaching modernise Australian workplaces and reduce those shocking 1 in 2 discrimination statistics?

A recent study into the impact of maternity coaching revealed five key elements that positively impact on professional women and their maternity leave/return to work experience. 

The interview-based research was lead by University of Wollongong student Jennifer North with a two-fold purpose. The first, to get a woman’s perspective on the benefits of maternity coaching; the second, to provide recommendations that employers can use to improve the ‘transformative experience’ and retention rates of women throughout their maternity leave and return to work transition.

To complete the study North interviewed experienced, professional women from various private sector organisations in order to represent various return-to-work experiences.

The results (expanded below) clearly highlighted why maternity coaching could modernise business culture in Australia. It showed that when women feel supported during one of the most challenging transitional periods of their career they feel valued, are more likely to stay with their employer and are more productive on their return.

If there was any doubt that this transitional period is challenging (and whether women really need extra support during the maternity leave transition) we need only turn to this year’s Australian Human Rights Commission nation-wide inquiry, titled Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review. It found that 1 in 2 Australian women experience discrimination during their pregnancy and/or return to work with “84% of mothers reporting significant negative impacts related to mental health, physical health, career and job opportunities, financial stability and their families”[1].  These sobering statistics support the growing evidence that maternity coaching is, for at least the women in this study, a crucial element to ensuring women avoid being victimised by tapping in to the support on offer – be that in the workplace, at home or a woman’s own reserves.

Maternity Coaching: why professional women want it

As the pace of business and life generally speeds up it makes juggling, negotiating and balancing a whole lot trickier. It’s no surprise that more professional women than ever are seeking out external support and letting go of the “I can do it all/just get on with it” mentality. Or worse – opting out altogether.

Maternity coaching is a good first port of call for such support as it establishes some perspective and sets up clear plans for managing steps to achieve short to long-term career goals. It also helps to address any practical or emotional issues related to the maternity/return to work transitional period such as common forms of discrimination like a reduction in salary, missing out on training, professional development and promotional opportunities.

The 5 key elements of maternity coaching that the women in North’s study felt were most beneficial:

  1. Coachee-led but solution-focused. Maternity coaching adapted to a woman’s personal situation (i.e. requirement for flexible work requests) rather than following a prescribed one-size-fits-all programme.
  2. Support from the coach and feeling valued by their organisation. This encouraged loyalty by reinforcing the commitment of women to remain with their employer.
  3. Increased confidence and focus impacts productivity. Loss of confidence or uncertainty about returning to work is a common experience for women. A coach helps to restore confidence by working with women to develop solutions and a return-to-work action plan that eases the transition period and enables them to be more productive on their return.
  4. Independent third party support and confidentiality. A key theme noted in the study was that an independent third party, with no agenda, conducted the coaching.  As a result they felt able to express any concerns in a safe and confidential environment.
  5. Communication and timing of the coaching. Communicating the option to engage with a maternity coach and the timing of initiating contact is particularly important to each woman.  Initially, some women did not think it was relevant for them, or the offer arrived after maternity leave had commenced and they had insufficient time to focus on it.  Some women feel it would have been helpful to have the coaching while they were on maternity leave.

Why is Maternity Coaching crucial for women, businesses and the Australian economy?

The study points out that many women “do not return, or resign shortly after maternity leave due to transition issues, a trend which has financial and career implications for women and productivity and cost implications for organisations.”

When women leave the workforce for good the repercussions later in life can be extremely damaging particularly in the event of divorce, death of a spouse or old age when women are vulnerable to poverty.

But why are they leaving and how can a maternity coach turn things around?

Let’s look at the stats again. In Australia 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men experience pregnancy/return to work discrimination in the workplace.  What’s more, the 2012 ABS Pregnancy and Employment Transitions report found that ‘1 in 5 women permanently left their job during pregnancy’.[2]

“Research and modelling shows that if businesses and other employers are able to retain women and men who are becoming new parents by eradicating pregnancy/ return to work discrimination, there will be a considerable economic dividend to both them and the wider economy.” Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick.[3]

In the Maternity Coaching study women who had the support of a coach and felt valued by their organisation were more committed and loyal to their employer. Higher retention rates means lower recruitment costs and organisations get to hold on to some of the most productive, talented workers available.

Maternity coaching also helps women realise their true value, which is particularly useful when negotiating pay, work arrangements (i.e. greater flexibility), employment conditions, career and development opportunities and entering into contracts. When women realise the value of their contribution to the workforce they stay in it.

“It has been estimated that an increase in female workforce participation by 6% would increase Australia’s annual GDP by around $25 Billion dollars.” The Grattan Institute 2012 via WGEA website [4]

How do organisations help mums return to work?

“This study demonstrated that the first step of ensuring women return to work after maternity leave was achieved with maternity coaching having a positive impact on many of the return-to-work transition issues.”

For family friendly employers who want to continue to develop their female employees and improve their gender equality ratios introducing maternity coaching programs are of high value. Here are three suggestions for leading practice offered by the study:

  1. Coaching: offer coaching prior to commencement of maternity leave so that women are able to set the agenda for confidential discussions.  Ideally, three coaching sessions should be offered – one session before maternity leave, one immediately prior to their return to work, and one three to six months after their return. Issues can then be addressed in a timely manner and women are more likely to feel supported throughout this transformative period.
  2. Manager training: line manager support in maternity leave transitions and flexible working requests is critical therefore training will enable managers to better handle these issues.
  3. Timely, open and honest communication: ongoing communication before, during and after maternity leave provides the organisation with an opportunity to facilitate discussions around expectations of both the employer and employee to ensure a balanced exchange of views.

“The benefits of communicating with an independent third party allowed them to express concerns in a safe and confidential environment and return to work with increased levels of confidence, focus and commitment to the organisation.”

Other themes of the Maternity Coaching study

A number of themes in North’s maternity coaching study may also be of significant interest for employers. In particular, women:

  • Referenced “flexible working arrangements, the financial and career sacrifices of working part-time, the impact on confidence levels, and changes to priorities, professional identity and psychological contracts” as important areas to address.
  • Viewed flexible working negotiations as a two-way process.
  • Thought manager or supervisor support is important in return-to-work transitions.
  • Generally perceived some dissonance between an organisation’s family-friendly policies and actual practices.
  • Decide to return to work following childbirth for non-financially motivated reasons as they value their education, careers and professional identity.
“While employers face many challenges in relation to pregnancy and return to work, the vast majority want to do the right thing by their staff.” Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick [5]  

Further resources for employers and employees

Maternity Coaching study: North Jen – Summary of Research paper on Maternity coaching.

Parents@Work Career Coaching. Personalised, one-to-one sessions with a qualified career coach as well as toolkits, group learning forums and other information resources to holistically support employees throughout their journey as a working parent.

Flexible working arrangements – arrangements for dealing with pregnancy, potential pregnancy, parental leave and breastfeeding. This assists employers to analyse and action a comprehensive work-life program and policy for pregnant and potentially pregnant employees. It has leading practice examples, case studies and a great checklist to identify potential issues.

Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review. The complete review and recommendations for how organisations could reduce pregnancy and return to work discrimination.

Know your own value: online pay and contract negotiation checklist for women. This Security4Women resource equips your female employees with the tools and checklists they may need to empower them to engage with managers about their employment arrangements before they question leaving.

[1] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, The price of parenthood: discrimination at work, viewed 12.9.14,

[2] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Pregnant, and overlooked for promotion – women deserve better, viewed 12.9.14

[3] Australian Human Rights Commission, Pregnancy report reveals personal and financial cost of discrimination, viewed 8.9.14

[4] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Pregnant, and overlooked for promotion – women deserve better, viewed 12.9.14

[5] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Employer feedback needed on pregnancy at work, viewed 12.9.14,