The Uncomfortable Truth About Women’s Careers After Babies

Guest post by Jessica Heagren

I was the youngest director in the FTSE100 company I worked for. I had worked my butt off for years! I worked in a heavily male-dominated environment in Financial Services and was a member of an all-male leadership team. I had a voice at the table!

One day I was presenting to the Big Board and I was asked what it was like to be a talented female in our organisation.

“Do you want my honest answer?” I asked.

Honesty often leads to great things
I proceeded to explain how tough it was, constantly having to back yourself and fighting constant condescension. I shared that, with no role models to look up to, it was hard to see how the next five years of my life would play out. I knew I wanted to start a family but I couldn’t see a way of keeping my career and doing that.

My honest answer led to my setting up the Diversity and Inclusion committee. I led the Gender & Working Families strand for the remainder of my time there.

When I had my first daughter a few years later, I tried going back to work, but as the only member of the team on a flexible working arrangement I just couldn’t make it work well. I lost my voice, I couldn’t speak out and my confidence was destroyed.

I left when I fell pregnant with my second daughter a year later.

I kept meeting women who had also lost their careers as a result of having children and was infuriated by it. So in 2020 I set up a platform to help women find part time or flexible work doing what they did before, to try and keep those skills in the workplace.

Proving what’s happening
In recent years I’ve found that more businesses are asking how to retain more women. They’re starting to recognise how many leave within the first two years of having children.

But until now, I’ve only ever had the anecdotal evidence, never the data.

In the summer of 2022, we surveyed almost a thousand women in pursuit of that data. We called the survey Careers After Babies: The Uncomfortable Truth. The findings were, as expected, deeply concerning.

The key findings 
The narrative that has surrounded women for years is that they don’t want to return to work after they have children. We found that 98% of women want to work after they have children.

The set-up of most workplaces makes working alongside having a family incredibly difficult. 85% of our surveyed mothers left the full-time workforce within 3 years of having their first child. 19% left altogether.

Even more distressingly, we found a 36% drop off at management level after women have children and a 44% increase in admin and entry level roles. Women are leaving their well-paid (and hard-earned) senior roles because they are not afforded the flexibility they need. They are then returning to the workforce in lesser-skilled, and therefore lower-paid roles, as that’s the only way they can see to combine work and parenting.

It’s taking upwards of ten years for women’s careers to recover. They may as well start again… which is sadly what most women are being forced to do.

Why is this happening?
Too few mothers are content with their work-life balance and they are not earning enough to afford extortionately priced childcare.

Businesses are not providing what parents need in order for them to be able to earn what they need and be parents. Line managers are not adequately trained and women aren’t being supported when they return from maternity leave.

We are working to an outdated model. Work has not kept up with society.

The business case for change is clear. There is a lack of women in leadership positions – just 4% of FTSE250 CEOs are women; just 1p in every £1 of capital investment is going to female founders; there is missed opportunity of a 10% increase in GDP for the UK economy; and the gender pay gap that is even at age 30 by grows to 14.9% ten years later.

What can we do about it?
We cannot keep allowing women to have to abandon their careers – not when so many families need two incomes to operate in this world. 74% of families have two working parents.

At That Works For Me we have built a needs-based model to assess businesses against and we are helping them get better. We’re working with some of the biggest brands in the UK to create the Careers After Babies accreditation. It’s no tick box exercise. It’s about transformation and commitment to being a better employer for working parents.

As much as I’m disheartened by the results of our report, the impact of Careers After Babies has been amazing and we are genuinely helping businesses be better. We’re also working with the best change-makers in the industry to all pull in the same direction.

This is the beginning of the revolution!

Jessica Heagren held a range of Director positions in UK insurance giant DLG. After finding, like many women, that combining a senior career in a financial services corporate with a young family just didn’t work, she co-founded That Works For Me. You can contact Jessica via the website or on LinkedIn.  The Careers After Babies report is available to download.