In order to facilitate better work-life balance, countries around the world are starting to legislate longer maternity leaves. Countries such as Canada encourage organizations to grant a year or longer of parental leave. Despite the good intentions, a longer maternity leave can harm a woman’s career advancement and decrease income. Researchers (Hideg, Krstic, Trau, & Zarina, 2018) ran three studies to answer the question of why these negative career outcomes may follow a longer maternity leave, and find potential ways to prevent these undesirable effects.
MATERNITY LEAVE, AGENCY, AND JOB COMMITMENT
Women who are looking to advance to positions involving greater leadership are generally expected to be agentic. Agentic characteristics include assertiveness and strong career-orientation, which are often associated with masculinity. When women take the full maternity leave time offered, this can put more attention on feminine, maternal characteristics. On the other hand, when women take a shorter maternity leave, it can signal dedication to the job. In their first study, the researchers used managerial job applications that differed only on length of maternity leave. They found that participants rated the woman who took a year-long leave as less agentic and less committed to the job than the woman who took a one-month leave. This suggests that women who take a more lengthy maternity leave may experience more difficulty advancing their careers because they are seen as less agentic.
How can the harmful outcome of longer maternity leaves be reduced? To examine this, the researchers took the same approach as their first study, but this time provided some participants with additional information from the applicant’s supervisor. The applicants were described as either agentic or in a more gender-neutral fashion. Once again, women that took a shorter maternity leave were perceived as having greater job commitment. However, for women who took a leave, providing agentic information led to higher ratings of job commitment than providing gender-neutral information. These results imply that presenting information about a woman’s agency can be helpful for those who take a longer maternity leave.
THE EFFECT OF CORPORATE PROGRAMS
Some women say they feel disconnected with their workplace during maternity leave, which makes it more challenging to reestablish themselves when they return. Therefore, some organizations developed corporate programs to help women stay more connected to their work during maternity leave. The researchers thought that these programs might be a way for women to demonstrate their agency and career-orientation, leading to greater perceptions of job commitment. The researchers’ third study used a similar approach as the previous two, using the application from the woman who took a yearlong maternity leave. This time, they added whether the company offered a corporate program, and if so, how the woman used it.
Results showed that women who used the corporate program were rated as being more agentic and more committed to the job. Additionally, for these two reasons, they were rated as having greater hireability. However, applicants who did not use their corporate program, had a program but no information on whether it was used, or did not have a program, were all rated as being less agentic, less committed, and less hireable. These findings suggest that having and using a corporate program to stay connected during maternity leave can increase perceptions of agency and connection to the job, leading to increased hireability.
Since longer maternity leaves are related to better health of both the mother and child, it is important to find ways to decrease the negative effects from a lengthy maternity leave on career advancement. The researchers demonstrated that perceptions of agency are one reason why these effects happen, so interventions to increase perceptions of agency would be beneficial. Simply providing information about a woman’s agency may be useful. Similarly, it may also be valuable to explicitly remind managers that maternity leave can potentially lead to negative perceptions and that they should suppress these when making impactful employment choices.
Another approach is implementing corporate programs that provide an avenue for women to stay connected to the workplace. Participation in such programs allows women to demonstrate agency to the extent they desire during maternity leave. These tactics can hopefully contribute to better work-life balance and family health outcomes, more accessible promotion opportunities, and more effective talent retention and development.
Hideg, I., Krstic, A., Trau, R. N., & Zarina, T. (2018). The unintended consequences of maternity leaves: How agency interventions mitigate the negative effects of longer legislated maternity leaves. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(10), 1155-1164.