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Back in the game: Retaining parents in the workforce

People take career breaks for various reasons, from raising a family to caring for relatives. One of the most common is women going on maternity leave. Here, Ailsa Charlton, a solicitor in the dispute resolution team at leading independent law firm for business Muckle LLP, and Susan Howe, equity partner and head of the dispute resolution team, tell juxtaposing stories of women at different stages of their legal careers, which highlight the challenges faced by working mothers.


It is widely accepted women shoulder a lot of responsibility in raising families, which negatively impacts their careers. 

That Works For Me’s ‘Work After Babies’ report found that although 98 per cent of mothers want to work, 85 per cent leave the full-time workforce within three years of having children, while 19 per cent stop working altogether. 

Various post-pandemic reports (Fawcett’s ‘Equal Pay Day 2020’ and PwC’s ‘Women in Work 2023’) also conclude women are quitting work after becoming mothers. 

Research suggests childcare is a primary reason for this – a 2022 Pregnant Then Screwed report found 43 per cent of mothers are considering leaving their jobs due to the cost of childcare.

Other issues include limited career opportunities and workplace flexibility.

How can employers support?

By creating happy and healthy staff, employers see a positive impact on productivity and retention. 

A flexible culture also enables greater access to a diverse talent pool, creating a more inclusive workforce. 

To achieve this, there must first be a cost benefit to women returning to work, through transparent parental leave policies and support for both mothers and fathers (including shared parental leave). 

Support could also include employee groups, such as Muckle’s parents network and parental mentor scheme. 

Most recently, Muckle partnered with Women Returners on ‘Return… the Muckle Way’, a structured training programme to help anyone (not just women) looking to return to work after a break of 12 months.  

Another way is through flexible working; employees working in a way that suits their and their employer’s needs, such as part-time or flexible working hours. 

Employers must also ensure equal opportunities for both existing and prospective employees. 

For example, 50 per cent of Muckle’s partners and directors are female, and women head up 56 per cent of its legal departments.

Ailsa’s story: re-entering the workforce 

Ailsa Charlton, a solicitor in Muckle’s dispute resolution team, has first-hand experience of the challenges returning to work can bring, after becoming a first-time parent in 2021 and returning after her maternity leave in 2022.

She says: “The transition between motherhood and returning to work can be a rollercoaster journey. 

“Although I love my job, my priorities since becoming a mother have obviously shifted, and there’s a lot of juggling between my work and personal life.

“Another challenge has been re-discovering my confidence after returning to work after such a substantial break.”

Ailsa credits the working culture at Muckle for helping her adjust to her new life as a working parent. 

She says: “Muckle values everyone’s parental responsibilities and has supported me from day one, from getting in touch immediately when having my baby to utilising keeping in touch days to help ease me back into work. 

“Muckle has recently introduced two initiatives to help parental returners to work, a support group and a mentor scheme, both of which I am proud to be part of. 

“It is so important for new parents to have a support network where everyone can share their feelings and experiences. 

“Whatever your issue, there is always someone to talk to who understands how you’re feeling. 

“You are never alone.”

Susan’s story: balancing motherhood and a career

It is sometimes helpful to remind ourselves about how far we’ve come. 

For Susan Howe, equity partner and head of Muckle’s dispute resolution team, having the flexibility to balance motherhood and a career is a very different concept from the one she experienced. 

She says: “What was the norm on many issues back in the 1980s/1990s would be unheard of today. 

“Even talking about parental responsibilities in the workplace was entirely unacceptable and there was very little flexibility for women who had children. 

“Most women simply accepted that if they chose to become mothers, they could forget about any career progression for years, possibly forever. 

“Sadly, I have seen so many excellent women fall by the wayside because of the difficulties in balancing the requirements of motherhood and a career – what a waste of talent.”

On a more positive note, Susan is pleased the working landscape is changing for the better. 

She adds: “The change is extraordinary, and it’s all for good. 

“Life is very different now for working mothers, which is exactly as it should be. 

“I am very proud of the equality and diversity culture we work hard to have here at Muckle. 

“It’s a real joy to see so many focused, articulate, intelligent women around me contributing to this business at every level.”