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A new study has been released by DCU’s Leadership and Talent Institute. It is entitled “Re-Engaging Talent Post- Maternity Leave: Enablers and Barriers to Positive Reintegration”. The research behind the Report was led by members of the Institute, Dr Yseult Freeney, Dr Lisa van der Werff and Professor David Collings. The process was sponsored by HR Search.

In the study,

“Over 300 women, the HR Director and line managers in 28 major organisations were interviewed. The sectors represented include Banking, Finance and Insurance; Professional Services, Telecommunications and Technology, Pharmaceuticals; Aviation and Logistics and Public Sector/Semi-State Organisations”.


The Report starts strong by noting that,

“While considerable attention is paid to the underrepresentation of women at senior levels of organisations, little or no research examines the impact of maternity leave on potential disengagement from career progression.”


Accordingly, this study is the first of its kind, setting out to examine the real barriers that women face upon their return from maternity leave. To get a full scope of this, women who were returning to work, their line managers, and HR staff in their organisation were interviewed by the researchers.

In the strategic overview, the authors noted,

“While on leave, women are feeling fairly positive but it is important to note the rather significant decline in positive emotions on the first day back.”



Many things can lead to a negative reintegration into the workplace. When all the experiences had been collated, three clear points led to a negative experience of reintroduction. They were:

  • career derailment;
  • unconscious biases; and
  • a change or deterioration in professional relationships.

Often, these took the form of people assuming that women approaching, or returning from maternity leave were fragile, over-tired, and no longer capable of the level of work achieved previously. These ideas were often compounded by the thought that once a woman had returned after her time away, it was merely a waiting game before her next pregnancy, and thus leave. This left women in a position where they felt their career may have stagnated or they may be forced to leave their organisation.



Where the women’s potential was valued, and their absence considered a “brief interlude” in a long-term career, the integration was more seamless and easier for the mother.

One respondent, a HR Director working in a Public Sector/Semi-State body, explained:

“This is one year out of a possibly 30-40 year career and that is what we are trying to build a culture around.”

Many of the positive stories of reintegration into the workplace had three elements at the heart:

  • women feeling and/or knowing that they were valued in the organisation;
  • an enrichment of professional relationships; and
  • a renewed focus on their work and career.


Best practice identified includes permitting phased return and employing flexible and agile practices for all, not just women.

The Report isolates many recommendations on best practice when managing the return of employees to the workplace after a period of parental leave. Many of these recommendations echoes those suggested by Claire Flannery in her blog, “Dealing with Employees with Family Commitments; Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave”, written for PAI. You can find Claire’s blog here.


Dr Yseult Freeney, Associate Professor in Organisational Psychology in DCU Business School, and Research leader on this project spoke to the research:

“Our research shows that maternity leave forms a critical juncture for many women in their careers.

The transition back to work is laden with challenges that can lead to career derailment when the return is not managed effectively. Fuelling this are views of maternity leave as a major disruption rather than a brief interlude, which can be conscious or unconscious … Ultimately, positive returns are associated with a renewed focus on careers and a strengthened relationship with the organisation.”


You can read the full Report here.


If you want to learn more, PAI will host a workshop on Thursday 22 March on this topic.

You can book your place here.

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