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The Empowerment Of Working Mothers Begins With Employers Understanding the unique needs of mothers within their teams, and working with them to ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace, is paramount– not just for their employees, but also for their bottom line.

By Charli Wright

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The secret to retaining top female talent? It's simple. Show up and support them when they need you the most– and, for mothers, that's often during those hazy early weeks and months of parenthood.

Motherhood is one of the most challenging yet rewarding journeys that a person can take. However, striking the balance between nurturing your new baby and your career can be a real juggling act.

It's something that I can relate to. As the leader of a creative agency where 75% of our employees are women, and as a mother myself, the topic of maternity leave is close to home.

Unfortunately, for many working women, the experience of early motherhood is not without its obstacles– and these are only exacerbated by an unsupportive workplace. However, this comes at the detriment of the wider economy. In fact, boosting the number of women that return to work after maternity leave could contribute an estimated US$385 billion to the MENA region.

Employers need to recognize that they have a crucial role to play in shaping outcomes. Understanding the unique needs of mothers within their teams, and working with them to ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace, is paramount– not just for their employees, but also for their bottom line. But how?

Let's start by addressing an uncomfortable truth: many employers perceive maternity leave as a drain on resources. Sorry, but it's true. From an employer's perspective, motherhood means maternity cover, increased insurance costs, additional sick days for children- the list goes on. However, the danger lies in allowing these perceptions to influence the employer-employee relationship.

We need to acknowledge the physical and emotional toll that caring for a newborn can take on a woman. It takes at least six weeks just to recover from birth, let alone readjust to the rhythms of life with a baby. But business moves fast, and taking even a quarter away from work can feel like a lifetime.

The early days and weeks of motherhood can already be a vulnerable period for a woman at the best of times. When this is compounded with the fear of falling behind career-wise and feeling disconnected from the workplace, an unsupportive employer can ultimately end up demotivating and driving away its talent.

This is why I think it's important for employers to redefine maternity leave as a period of transition, rather than a hiatus from professional life.

Related: Striking A Balance: Juggling Parenthood And Entrepreneurship in the GCC

Work has always provided me with a great sense of fulfilment. I've often joked that my business, JWI, is my first child, and I always knew that I would return to the workforce after having my baby. But importantly, I felt empowered to begin my transition back to work at the time that felt right for me. Stepping back into the office after my leave, I immediately felt mentally stronger, focused and ready to begin "my new normal." Just as becoming a mother has enriched my life in so many ways, my career also continues to do so. And this is thanks to the supportive office culture that we have worked hard to cultivate.

Unfortunately, not everyone I know has enjoyed the same experience. For many mothers, a lack of support –and even empathy– from employers is a significant issue. In fact, according to a PwC Middle East survey, only 44% of women felt that their employer supported those who return to work after a career break.

The bottom line is that everyone deserves to feel valued in their place of work. And if an employee doesn't, that's a real problem. Because this is what drives brilliant, talented, hardworking mothers out of the workforce. And that, ultimately, is bad for business.

So, what can we as employers do to better support the new mothers within our teams? For me, it comes down to empowerment through empathy.

Job candidates are often reminded that an interview is as much an opportunity to check that a company is the right fit for them, as it does for the interviewer to determine their suitability for a role. This logic can be applied to a woman returning to the workforce after maternity leave: what is her professional purpose? Her passion? It has to be strong enough for her to leave her child with another caregiver every working day, to turn up and deliver for you.

In this respect, I believe it is the responsibility of the employer to motivate and support employees during their transition back to work.

But how does this work in practice? Ultimately, the goal is to create a culture of empowerment within organizations- one that prioritizes the well-being and professional development of all employees, including new mothers. And this comes down to being proactive, and establishing clear lines of communication.

Developing structured procedures, processes and human resources (HR) policies for before, during, and after a woman's maternity leave can be beneficial for both parties. It doesn't just make the handover and future reintegration much smoother, but it also gives employees the opportunity to assert control over their personal development– which, let's face it, is a rarity in the early days of parenthood. This means that they're more likely to return to their roles excited for this next chapter, rather than anxious about falling behind, even before they've set foot in the office.

This should also include putting enhanced support systems in place, to help working mothers readjust to life in the office. From flexible working arrangements to a salary sacrifice scheme for nursery fees, these solutions could vary based on the nature of the job role, the capabilities of the company, and the needs of the mother.

For example, at JWI, our "Go Beyond" mantra doesn't just define our approach to client relations; it's also integral to how we work internally for our employees- because we want to "Go Beyond" for them, too. We're proud of our culture, where our team's passion for their jobs translates into the work we produce for our clients. Where every member feels valued and appreciates the importance of achieving a work-life balance. And this means that when one of us begins that journey into parenthood, they know that their colleagues are right behind them, ready to cheer them on every step of the way.

By implementing strategic processes to support working mothers, companies have a lot to gain. Numerous surveys over the years have indicated that mothers work faster and multitask better– countless more have also shown that companies with more female executives are more likely to outperform those with fewer senior women. And companies that have embraced progressive policies to support working parents see tangible benefits, including improved employee retention, and productivity. By nurturing a culture of empathy and respect, companies don't just stand to raise their reputation– it could also yield better business outcomes.

Yes, your employees work for you. But, when it really matters, we as employers need to be ready to put the work in for them, and support their journey into parenthood. This is one of the most critical ways that we can build a truly inclusive working environment for mothers- and, in doing so, we can help more women to thrive both personally and professionally. And it all begins with having the right support in place.

Related: Glitter, Guilt, And Gigabytes Of Unheard Voice Notes: The Not-So-Glamorous Life of Today's Working Parents In The UAE

Charli Wright is the Managing Director for the Middle East at JWI, a creative marketing agency with offices in London and Dubai.

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