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Mentorship Series #1: What I Learned About Navigating Maternity Leave

By Publications Checkout
Mentorship Series #1: What I Learned About Navigating Maternity Leave

In the first of a series of articles by the LEAD Network Ireland Chapter in partnership with Checkout, Sarah Ferguson, General Manager of Kellanova Ireland and Co-Chair of the Chapter, explains what the LEAD Network is all about and shares her own experience of dealing with a challenge that many women experience in the workplace.

LEAD Network stands for Leading Executives Advancing Diversity and was established 10 years ago in the Netherlands as a non-profit foundation.

Today, it is in 12 countries across Europe, with representation from over 200 CPG and 100 retail companies and has over 18,000 individual members.

It is run by and for volunteers to attract, retain and advance women through education, leadership, and business development.

Last year, we officially launched the LEAD Network Ireland Chapter. Jane McEvoy from Musgrave and I volunteered as co-chairs and we started to build the Ireland Chapter in May of 2023. It has been a real cross-company effort.


Gender Parity

In Ireland, we are driving the advancement of the Irish FMCG industry to ensure that all individuals are valued, rewarded, and developed, regardless of gender. We want to see gender balance at all levels within the industry, which is representative of the wider population.

Not only does this make good common sense, but it has also been proven that teams with an equal gender mix perform better than male-dominated teams in terms of sales and profits*.

We now have 18 committee members from a cross section of well-known companies in Ireland – Kellanova, Musgrave, Bank of Ireland, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Haleon, Kraft Heinz, Lidl, Nestlé, Pepsico, Unilever, Unipharmedtech and Valeo Foods.

In the past six months, we have built a membership base of over 500 people in Ireland. These members sign up free of charge and can access virtual learning sessions and in person networking and speaker events, as well as online materials.

We are also planning a HR round table session, where we aim to address some of the policies that will reduce the barriers for women in the workplace, and we are just starting to pilot a cross-company mentoring scheme.


When we heard that Checkout magazine was running a mentoring segment on its website, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to engage our brilliant committee members, pull in some of the best talent from our partner companies, and help people to unlock their full potential.

Through this regular segment, we will address some of the common challenges that women face in the workplace, discuss our personal experiences, and share any advice that we have gleaned along the way.

Maternity Leave

One of those common challenges is maternity leave. Having a baby is a significant milestone in life, and it is also a critical time to keep women engaged in the workforce. In Ireland, approximately 12.5% of women leave the workforce after having a baby**.

Having a baby and juggling the new demands of being a mum, alongside the demands of work, and all the other commitments and needs that you have, can feel overwhelming.

I had two very different maternity experiences, one was great while the other was not, but those experiences taught me a lot about what can be done to support women at this pivotal moment in their lives.


If the individual, the manager, and the company take equal responsibility to put the right support plan in place, you can have women who are highly motivated and engaged on their return. This is a win/win situation.

When I went off to have my first baby, I felt incredibly supported. Prior to being pregnant, I had a clear development plan in place, as well as several roles that had been identified to give me critical experiences. Locations had been discussed and I had signalled that I was mobile.

Having had a good Christmas break, I was back in the office on the long first week of January in 2016 and my boss rang me to talk about a great opportunity based in Geneva. He asked me to talk to my husband and come back to him on Monday with an answer. Little did he know that just three days before I had taken a pregnancy test which had come back positive.

My first thought was “no way, I’m going to have a baby”, but I went home and talked to my husband, and we decided to break the question down into two.

Is this an experience that we think would be good for us, ignoring our recent news?


And then, given the current reality, would that make us have a different answer?

We both agreed it was something we wanted to do…what was to lose? If we hated it, we’d have learned something about ourselves and we’d just come back. For me, it was clear then that this was an opportunity that I wanted to grab with both hands.

However, I was aware of the business practicalities and didn’t want to blindside my boss, leaving him with a vacancy to fill within six months of me arriving in Switzerland.

I told my manager the situation, and that at that stage even my parents didn’t know I was pregnant, that I would love the opportunity, but didn’t want to take it if the timings didn’t work for both of us.

As a result of that conversation, I didn’t take the role. However, he agreed that we would work on a plan that would enable me to relocate, post-maternity leave, to Geneva.

Coming Back

People often asked me if it was scary coming back having taken time off, with a new baby, a new job and in a different country, but honestly it was very exciting. It gave me a chance to set out a whole new routine and create a new set of rules to make work and home balance.

I decided to work late on a Tuesday and Thursday, which allows me to be there for creche pick up on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and that is something that I still do now.

Knowing about the role I was returning to, and having been given a new and exciting opportunity, meant that I was highly motivated on my return and extremely loyal to the company.

My advice to anyone who is about to go on maternity leave would be to layout your ground rules before you go. Share what you are thinking about timings, what would interest you when you come back, what you do or don’t want to be contacted about whilst you are on maternity leave, and how you will organise yourself on your return.

Think about what will happen when your child is inevitably ill. Who will be called, how will you manage it and what support is required? I would also urge women not to default as the number one carer. If that is what you want then that is totally up to you, but it shouldn’t just be assumed, so talk to your partner/support network and start thinking about it ahead of time.

If you are a manager, ensure that you are still having career conversations. Talk to your employee rather than making assumptions about what they might or might not want and think about what it is that you can do for them to make maternity leave a positive experience.

For companies, I would urge investment in workplace maternity coaching. Even if it is not something you can afford to invest in on an ongoing basis, there will be frameworks that you can put in place to support women pre, during and post maternity leave that will ensure they not only come back to work but come back energised and motivated.


If you work in the retail or CPG industry and want to hear more about how to help women rise, sign up to become a member of the LEAD Network. It is completely free and there are no hidden catches or obligations:


* Hoogendoorn, Sander, Hessel Oosterbeek and Mirjam Van Praag. ‘The impact of gender diversity on the performamce of business teams: Evidence from a field experiment.’ Management science 59, no.7 (20213): 1514-1528


** Citrix Baby Brain Drain Study, Ireland 2015

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