There’s no transition quite like the return to work after maternity leave. The exhaustion, the pumping, the childcare dropoff. The whole high-wire act of balancing a high-stakes job with new motherhood can take its toll, and the struggle during that initial adjustment period can have a long-term effect on a woman’s career. For some, it might mean getting siloed in the “mommy track.” For others, it might mean quitting a job that lacks support.

In a 2022 survey of 2,000 employed moms with young children, 35% said it was hard for them to regain their footing at work after being away. And though 57% missed being at work while on leave, 55% of moms also had a hard time not being around their child. Clearly, ambition and motherhood are not mutually exclusive. However, it takes more than a twelve or sixteen-week maternity leave to retain new moms.

While reentry programs for women returning to the workforce after a year or more break can help these professionals attain new skills and find a job, they don’t address the specific needs of women returning to the same job after a shorter leave. But ramp-up programs — which allow women to work on an abbreviated schedule at full pay for a few months once returning from maternity leave — are an extremely effective way to support and retain women returning to the workplace, says Lauren Smith Brody, author and founder of The Fifth Trimester movement.

All research points to at least six months as the optimal time off for maternity leave, but without that being federally protected, you really do need that ramp up to get back on your feet. Not everyone does, but you should have the option,” Brody says.

Ramp-up programs are not new, but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent, particularly in law and financial firms. In part, it’s because the cultural conversation about what women need and deserve in order to advance in their careers has evolved. Flexibility and care are being prioritized in ways unheard of prior to the pandemic, and absent a longer maternity leave policy enshrined into law, many women look to their employers to help bridge the gap.

“What I learned over the pandemic was that so many of the lessons that new working moms have had to learn and negotiate with the highest individual stakes [with a new baby] are now being negotiated on a national level,” says Brody.

The Bottom Line

Giving new mothers more time for care — both for themselves and their babies — in those crucial months has multiple benefits. In the short term, it helps offset the dual crises of childcare and burnout. A KPMG analysis of the European firm Vodafone found that adding a return to work policy of sixteen weeks maternity leave, plus a four-day work week at full pay for six months would give their women employees 608 million more days with their babies while saving them $14 billion in childcare costs.

Over the long term, any policy that ensures women can take leave and feel supported in their goal to advance at work keeps more women in the leadership pipeline. In fact, 54% of working moms are more motivated than ever to continue their career ascension. Over a period of time, this might help offset the “motherhood penalty,” or the loss of about 4% income, per child, over the course of a woman’s career.

The impact doesn’t stop there: investing in women can have a profound impact on a company’s bottom line. The KPMG analysis also found that global businesses could save up to an estimated $19 billion annually by offering universal leave. After all, recruiting and training new employees is expensive, costing global businesses $47 billion every year. That’s not counting harder to measure metrics like company morale and productivity that are impacted when women leave after motherhood.

“It might take a leap of faith to understand how this brand new struggling mom will be a leader, but organizations have to invest in their potential,” says Brody.

Reexamining Motherhood Biases

Women in the C-Suite are uniquely positioned to adopt ramp-up programs — and affecting change often starts with recognizing one’s own biases. For starters, leaders can assess how they may perpetuate “benevolent discrimination” or “when you’re biased against someone for what you think is [for] their own good,” explains Brody.

“When you say, I wouldn’t want to ask that woman to take that work trip now, she has a new baby, in some ways that’s thoughtful, but you’re not giving her the agency to decide what it is that she needs to be successful,” says Brody. Even supportive leaders can undermine a woman’s career ascension by making assumptions about their ambitions.

Brody notes that mothers who worked their way up to the C-Suite a decade or more ago may be the toughest bosses and push those under them harder than a male executive. While counterintuitive, this is attributed to “survivor bias” or the notion that if you succeeded despite the odds, everyone else should too.

“Examine if you had something working in your favor that got you to where you are,” says Brody. “For the sake of the people who you’re trying to support underneath you, if you truly believe in their potential and you truly believe in inclusion, you have to let go of a lot of the biases you have about why it’s so hard.”

Brody notes that greater awareness about the importance of care in a variety of situations, be it for a new baby, an ailing parent, or much-needed self-care for leaders, might trigger a shift in how care is perceived. Taking time off is not reflective of a lack of drive, but rather a sign of a strong, balanced leadership.

For people who take time off to care for others, “let them know that they’re not stigmatized. Let everyone know they have a personal life that’s precious.”

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