13/11/2013 06:19 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Government Research Into Maternity Leave Discrimination

I welcome the government's £1 million research into the extent and impact of pregnancy discrimination. I have spent much of my career advising coaches and employers how best to prepare for, and manage during, maternity leave - and handle their return to work afterwards. The more it is examined and discussed, the better. After all it's something that affects most of the working population in one way or another, either as working mothers, managers or fellow team members.

Successfully transitioning into, and out of, maternity leave is notoriously tricky. Our own research found that while outright discrimination was rare, much more widespread was a perception among women that they had been subject to unconscious bias by their employers. I urge the government researchers not to overlook the importance of unconscious bias in the murky mix of behaviours that often underlie discrimination.

Unconscious bias occurs when an employer makes assumptions about what work a pregnant employee will be capable of doing prior to maternity leave, and what projects or responsibility they will want to take on once they have returned. All too frequently the women who I coach have seen their requests to work flexible or reduced hours wrongly interpreted as wanting to put their careers on permanent hold. Working mothers can be met by a 'wall of silence' when they return to work and are not asked for their views. The assumption is made that they will want easier, less pressured, roles. Whereas actually it can be very demoralising for women who have made the commitment to return to work, to then automatically be allocated less demanding or interesting projects.

I have seen returning mothers, particularly in the City, feeling very vulnerable about their positions, especially when management changes while they were away. They feel as if their track record has been effectively wiped out. Managers have also become risk averse when putting together their teams. This inevitably means reverting to choosing people in their own image. As so many managers are male this leads to men picking men.

I'm not trying to bash men or paint employers as thoughtless. Far from it. This situation stems less from discrimination or bad intentions, but often simply from a lack of awareness and understanding, and different generational attitudes to working mothers. That's why I'm glad the government has set up this investigation. At the same time though, I wonder if emphasising legislative aspects of discrimination risks actually increasing unconscious bias. Already employers are facing a mountain of red tape, HR legislation and increasing demands from staff, quite apart from having to make commercial headway in a difficult economy. I fear employers will now have additional concerns about getting sued when staff members return. It would not be surprising if unconscious bias whispered, "It's just so much easier simply to employ a man." Unwitting, but insidious.

However, many biases can be tackled by increasing understanding and improving communication between women and employers. Too often talented women are needlessly lost from UK plc because of conflicting assumptions and limited dialogue. I have long banged the drum for organisations to adapt to more flexible approaches to work and learn how to support and develop women over the full course of their careers. In a previous blog, , I wrote about companies needing to think less in terms of a rigid career ladder and more about embracing a more flexible career lattice framework. The case for allowing both men and women the option to track deliberately sideways (or diagonally) at certain times in their career, before heading up again, is clear. Not, I hasten to add, as a slacker's charter. As anyone who has tried to balance kids with work knows, there is nothing slack about it!