Can you take serious time out of an investment banking career and still have a job at the end of it? In theory, yes – banks are compelled to offer maternity leave and most say they support sabbaticals. In reality, it’s more nuanced. Take the example of Matt Whitaker, former director of fixed income trading at RBC Capital Markets who went on sabbatical to travel the world from February to September 2015 and has yet to come back; colleagues say he’s left RBC for good.
Maternity leave might not hold the mystique of a year in South America or be as virtuous as time spent helping refugees, but for women with children it’s unavoidable, making mothers experts on the pitfalls of spending time away from the desk.
Website City Parents, has been amalgamating the experiences of women who’ve taken leave from investment banking jobs. There are plenty of horror stories about their experiences. If you’re thinking of escaping for months, or years, this is their condensed advice:
1. If you were in a client-facing role before you left, quietly accept an internal-facing position when you first come back
If you leave a client-facing role for an appreciable amount of time and return to a similar client-facing position, you are certain to come unstuck. One banking mother tells City Parents how she came back from maternity leave and was expected to meet a “significant” sales target. This proved impossible as colleagues had been allocated her key clients and she’d closed big projects before she left.
The second time she went on maternity leave, the same woman says she returned to a, “combination of internal operational roles and client delivery, and gradually rebuilt my knowledge of the market and sales channels while gaining goodwill from colleagues and gradually regaining my own client portfolio.”
This worked much better (although we suspect she was paid less).
2. Stay in touch
This might be difficult if you’re in the jungle – either in Bolivia or in Calais. but it will definitely help if your career break isn’t total. One mother describes how she continued to dial into meetings and go into the office during her maternity leave. Another says she scheduled meetings with her boss before she went away and before she came back again.
3. Prepare your team, but don’t delegate entirely
If you’re managing people before you leave, ensure they’ll be able to cope well in your absence. This should reflect well upon you, up to a point. “The key for me was successful preparation of the team as I had no cover,” says another female banker. “I allocated out my role when I let them know I was pregnant and trained them for six months.”
Despite all this preparation, the banker in question doesn’t seem to have felt inclined to let her team take all the glory during her absence: “I talked to my deputy once per week for about 30 min to help him cope while I was off and kept up with the business/read almost every email [although didn’t take much in],” she adds.
4. Stand your ground
When you first come back to the office, you might find that everything’s changed. “You may find that during your absence other people have stepped up and it may not be obvious where you will fit back in,” warns another banking mother. “Do not be afraid to stand your ground and do not accept any position in order to not “rock the boat,” she warns. Be clear about your expectations
5. Don’t work for a US bank. Don’t work for a boss who’s never worked with a woman who’s going on maternity leave
In the US, most women only take two or three months’ maternity leave, and this can make US banking bosses unsympathetic in the face of European women who want to take six months or more. The first time she took maternity leave at a US bank, another banker describes how she returned to “no bonus, no promotion.” It didn’t help that: “the three managers up the chain, deciding my fate, had no kids and made little attempt to understand my situation.”
6. Try and keep the same boss
Anecdotally, the women with the worst post-maternity leave experiences seem to be those who return to work only to find that a previously familiar and sympathetic boss has disappeared and an unknown and unsympathetic boss has taken his place.
Unfortunately, there may not be much you can do about this. Bosses can be inconsistent – one woman describes how her boss encouraged her to take as long on maternity leave as she wanted, and then left to join another division of the bank. Her department was then reorganized and she was made redundant before she even got back.
Unfortunately, you can’t stop your boss from leaving. You can, however, make every effort to stay in touch so that you know exactly what’s going in with your team.
The moral of the story is that maternity leave in investment banking isn’t so much leave as partial disengagement. And this can bring problems of its own: one mother describes how she was vilified by members of her prenatal group for being too, “career-focused” while she was off. Welcome to the world of compromise.