Stressful and Successful? The hidden obstacles for women returning from maternity leave

It has been almost a decade since the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009, which provided flexible work entitlements to assist employees, balance care for children, maintain personal career paths and improve work and family balance. But while we are making slow and steady progress towards gender parity, there are hidden obstacles that mothers must face which all intensify the return to work process:

Economic Security

Motherhood is one of the biggest triggers of the gender pay gap, with structural inequalities within society that do not accommodate a career break or the need to go less than full time. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency outlines in the overview of Australia’s Gender Pay Gap Statistics that Australia’s national gender pay gap is 14.1%, although this has fluctuated between 14% and 19% for the last two decades. In 2019 this is still influenced by such factors as:

  • Workplace discrimination (hiring and pay decisions)

  • Men and women accessing work in different industries and jobs, with female dominated positions attracting lower wages

  • Gender divide over unpaid housework and caring duties

  • Lack of workplace flexibility

  • Women’s time out of the workplace which impacts career progression and opportunities.

The break in career for parenting has resulted in many women retiring with half of the superannuation of males. One 2016 Senate report found that one in three women are retiring with no superannuation at all. Suggested strategies of salary sacrificing are allowing women to top up their super, however when already incurring a pay gap, and increased family costs for many, this is not an option.

“I was adamant that this would not happen to me. We [my partner and I] agreed as soon as I fell pregnant that he would divert half of his super into my account while I was on leave. We will do the same if we have another baby” Ash, Gold Coast, aged 32.

Quality Child Care

Mothers feel more prepared for work when they are able to access the best childcare arrangements. Finding childcare, however, is complicated, and it is rare that families will retain the same arrangement from birth to school. There is limited assistance for parents in Australia to make sense of what quality child care looks like. Some parents know to jump onto waiting lists as soon as they fall pregnant, but others are faced with a very different reality when thinking of options weeks out from a return to work. The task of finding and assessing suitable and quality child care arrangements largely lands on the responsibility of the mother.

“I just didn’t even know there was an issue. I am the first in my group of friends and colleagues to fall pregnant. I mean I feel pretty embarrassed, we just didn’t know it would be this hard. I am losing sleep. I feel sick. We waited so long to have a baby and I just can’t leave her with anyone. But what choice do I have? I had 6 months off but I have to go back to work in a few weeks, there is no other option. We just have to hope for the best”. Anna, Brisbane, aged 38.

The Australian government declares it is committed to increasing access to affordable and quality childcare, with a national goal to a sustainable child care system that is both supportive to parents entering and remaining in the workforce, while at the same time provides high quality care and early learning. While there has been progress, equal ‘access’ to childcare is only one issue needing to be addressed.

Recent reports such as “Why Child Care is not affordable” show that there are ongoing issues:

  • Child care is becoming less affordable, regulations are driving up costs and out of pocket costs growing above inflation, even with taxpayer subsidies.

  • Despite oversupply in some urban areas of Australia the availability of suitable care is a problem, with waiting times as long as two years.

  • The low wages of childcare professionals, predominately a female profession.

Household Management

Household management and chores are inevitable, however the gendered division of labour is not. The gap between male and female responsibilities is narrowing, however findings from the 2018 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey show that overwhelmingly it is women who are expected to carry the load, whether they want to or not. 2019 research outlines that working Mothers experience more work-family conflict if their husbands hold more traditional gender role attitudes, independently of the mothers workload, or age of the children. Not surprisingly academic research also shows that division among housework is associated with relationship quality and levels of intimacy. In particular the divide between who does the dishwashing is particularly consequential to relationship quality, especially women.

“Because of men’s lack of desire to twirl a brush around the toilet bowl, or their general lack of concern about having a clean house, we tend to think of them as being “dirt-blind”. But really it’s because men aren’t penalised for messiness in the same way that women are. For women, cleanliness in the family home is a further extension of prevailing social norms dictating that women must be clean, hairless, perfumed and pretty. In this regard, doing housework is a way for women to “perform” their gender.” Leah Ruppanner

Supportive Workplaces

There are many examples of supportive workplaces and mothers who are thriving, and research shows that flexibility, people and culture are the three main enablers of success. Rapid Context is a flexible workforce. All roles have been designed to be delivered flexibly in a family friendly environment. But we know too well this is not something many people can access.

We have had a 70% increase in the number of unsolicited CVs sent to us from mothers who are unsatisfied with their workplaces:

“I work full time work in part time hours. Nothing changed except now I also squeeze in looking after my daughter. I am exhausted. I feel suffocated by my own situation. The only reason I don’t speak up is because if I do then maybe I will ruin my chances to return to full time work one day. I know some women have supportive workplaces, but that just is not something that I have experienced”. Emily, Sydney, aged 27

Personal Safety Net

We live in an age where extended families are dispersed and there is a limited guarantee of a personal safety net of family and friends. Life patterns are incredibly individualised and women are having children at different times to their social group. Delayed retirement ages mean that many women cannot look to their own parents for support. Social media has reshaped human connection and reduced practical levels of support from physical communities. Once women leave the maternity ward they are very often left in isolation trying to navigate this new world of being a mother.

However, it is also important to note that it is not just the new mothers that can be isolated and challenged, it happens throughout motherhood. Every developmental change of a child from birth to adulthood can require a mother to form new understandings of a childs strengths and weaknesses and this can bring back feelings of being underprepared, overwhelmed and alone. There are a constant push-pull factors that shape a mothers’ reality every day, and the majority of care and caring arrangements still rest on a mother’s shoulders, such as:

  • Arrangements and logistics for child care

  • Health and wellbeing, for example specialist appointments and sick leave when they are unwell

  • Supporting children with high needs

These things can all come as a large shock to women returning to work after maternity leave. The motivation behind returning to work can be financial, career progression, obligation (post maternity leave), or purely because they can and they want to. It is part of a manager’s role to make this process as positive as possible and provide the support needed while they find their feet in a potentially new approach to work.

Tips for those managing Mothers returning to work after maternity leave:

  1. Encourage open dialogue about their new flexible needs. FWA’s often need to be changed with the needs of families. Be clear about avenues for communication when and if this needs to happen.

  2. Create a support system. Some may need it more than others, however the option to connect with others who have been in a similar position can be reassuring and educational.

  3. Acknowledge any changes in their role to the individual and the team they are working in. If they have reduced their hours clearly articulate how this will have changed the expectations around collaboration and output.

  4. Hold meetings within core hours, and give plenty of notice for any additional commitments such as networking events or client dinners.

  5. Enable access to appropriate spaces where mothers can express breastmilk without feeling guilty, inconvenient or embarrassed.

Rapid Context can help you understand and make targeted changes to your organisations flexibility. We use high quality defensible research to meet urgent needs without compromising rigor. We assist organisations in solving sensitive and complex problems related to policy change or development, reform, culture change, or targeted issues such as leadership. Our experienced team of specialists analyse issues using different lenses and vantage points – not off the shelf models - to provide a more complete appreciation of the problem and develop solutions that are tailored to your specific context. Please send enquiries to

Sara Edwards is the General Manager of People and Culture at Rapid Context. She specialises in flexible workforces, organisational culture, and education and training. She works with clients across industries to develop successful flexible workforces, analyse and report on organisational culture and assist with team development.

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