Prue Gilbert is the CEO and Founder of Grace Papers. A former lawyer, Prue’s company develops programs that empower expectant and working parents to navigate family and career.
Her first tip is to think hard about how you use parental leave time. Will it be a total break from work, or would you like to keep your hand in, on your terms? Prue points out that the same legislation that ensures our entitlement to parental leave (the Fair Work Act 2009) contains an underutilised component that supports employers and employees to “keep in touch” though the parental leave period.
“You’re eligible to agree with your employer on up to ten (paid) keeping in touch days. Those might be for ongoing training, coming in to a conference or to consult with your manager on an important issue; we’ve seen those used quite broadly,” Prue says.
While some employees may prefer not to use this option, Prue says taking it up provides two benefits.
First, it reminds employers that while you aren’t there in person, you are still their employee. Second, she says there’s strong evidence that women who access keeping in touch programs and other strategies while they are on parental leave are more “retainable” than those that don’t.1 (The latter is particularly evident if the leave covers an extended period of time.)
Although parental leave is a busy time, especially for first time parents, Prue says it can also be useful to use the time away from work as an opportunity for reflection. How would your future career look if you took away all existing barriers?
“Start to imagine - based on your experience, talents and skills - what your potential looks like. We call it a Professional Vision. We’ve found that when women go back to work and place that vision at the cornerstone of their conversations it mitigates the biases that often exist or are imposed on them by others,” she says.
Prue advises that only once your vision is clear should you begin a conversation with your employer around flexibility.
“Once you start to present your value proposition to the organisation and remind them of your skills, talents and abilities, the negotiation becomes a lot easier, because they are reminded that they actually want you back,” Prue says.
“Whilst utopia says that you shouldn’t have to be the one that’s negotiating all of this, the reality is, for as long as one in two women experience some form of pregnancy-related discrimination, don’t leave it to chance. Use the tools you have access to and set yourself up to have the right kind of conversations,” she says.
Whatever you’ve put in place for your period of absence, when your return date approaches, employees do have some legal obligations.
On a practical level, legislation requires you to notify employers no less than four weeks prior to returning. If you want an extension, the same applies. While employers are often more flexible than the law, under the legislation, you’re entitled to ask for one extension of maternity leave, up to 24 months in total time away.
For those coming back on a part-time arrangement, it’s worth taking time to put in place a clear delegation strategy about what will happen on days you are not in the office.
“What does that look like? How will you hand over your work? How will you make sure you’ve had the right conversations with the right people to ensure your views are represented at a meeting you can’t attend?” says Prue.
She also advises getting clear on your values. What is negotiable for you, and what simply isn’t? Once you know that you’ll be better tasked to set professional boundaries.
If your vision includes climbing the corporate ladder, Prue recommends finding a “sponsor” within the organisation: someone who can champion your career path, including in your absence.
Unlike a mentor, a sponsor doesn’t have to be someone you share values with, or even like. Instead, it’s about something more pragmatic.
“A sponsor will have a deep appreciation for your professional vision and where you’d like to go in your career, and they effectively use their chips to advocate on your behalf,” she says.
Whichever path you choose, Prue says to bear one thing in mind: go easy.
“Remember, this is a transition, we need to give people – and ourselves - a break.”