03 Mar 2022
How to Help Working Mothers Thrive: 5 Action Steps for Employers
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An important introductory note: Although this article is primarily focused on “working mothers,” we honor the fact that this term can represent a wide range of gender identities and family situations, and that the intersectionality of race, socioeconomic status, and LGBTQ+ identity compound the challenges of balancing employment and caregiving. We also recognize that in addition to children, people provide care for elderly family members and loved ones with disabilities. We write from our own experience as cis-gendered, white working mothers with male partners and welcome additional perspectives from colleagues, clients, and community members about their lived experiences. Because we believe what is good for working mothers is good for all of society, we offer these ideas.
Introduction: What’s at Stake
As we enter the third year of this pandemic, 1.1 million women have left the workforce. They have not yet returned. While the January jobs numbers were promising overall, the data is disappointing when analyzed for gender: 27 times more men joined the labor force in January 2022 than women. The numbers are even more alarming for women of color (National Women’s Law Center).
As executive search professionals supporting our clients through the tightest labor market we have ever experienced, we can assure you this is no time to be ruling out 50 percent of the potential workforce. If companies don’t address this new normal, we stand to lose an entire generation of women leaders (and their daughters, who are watching). The economic and societal costs could be enormous.
How can employers engage the working mothers they have managed to retain through the Great Resignation? And how can they build organizations worthy of recruiting even more?
Reframe: The Bright Side
Even before the pandemic, many companies were moving toward clarifying their purpose, engaging employees in a mission bigger than themselves. Data show purpose-driven companies score higher on employee and customer satisfaction and grow three times faster than their competitors.
A key element of purpose is authenticity, which connects deeply to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Many companies have begun to focus on making it possible for people of many backgrounds, races, and identities to bring their whole, authentic selves to work. We believe the same can be true for parents. In fact, we believe this is the only way for companies to recruit, retain, and empower working mothers: by recognizing that they are mums first.
Action Steps for Employers
Based on our experience as trusted advisers to CEOs and CHROs, and as working moms ourselves, here are some action steps we recommend for employers to build this culture of support.
- Listen and learn. Working mothers are literally meeting at local football fields to scream. They have experienced a disproportionate amount of stress in the past two years, and an important first step for employers is to ask them what they need—practically and structurally. Foster an environment of transparency and a culture of care where mothers feel it is ok to share their challenges and ask for help. An engaged workforce is one that feels heard. Be prepared to listen.
Educate yourself on the structural inequities working mothers face and experts’ innovative ideas on how to address them. We can recommend Career and Family: Women’s Century Long Journey toward Equity by Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin. McKinsey and LeanIn.org collaborate on an annual Women in the Workplace study that is also well worth the read.
- Embrace flexible work for everyone. The pandemic proved that we can be productive when working remotely. We have an opportunity to shift our mindset from an industrial 40-hour, 8am to 5pm work-week and embrace remote, project-based work and flexible hours. This requires trust, and it means giving ownership of the work to the employee. (Experts are beginning to caution about a “Zoom Ceiling,” so do be careful that this newfound flexibility doesn’t unintentionally hurt working moms.)
Some companies are even trialling the four-day work week. Starting in June, 30 UK-based companies will test the new schedule as a part of a pilot with 4 Day Week Global, a New Zealand-based non-profit advancing the concept globally.
Be proactive in developing your company’s policy on flexible work and communicate clearly and regularly with managers to gather feedback. When recruiting for a new role—even at the highest executive levels—be prepared to answer questions about remote and flexible work.
- Rethink career timelines. Many traditional executive career timelines involve specific steps at specific ages, which overlap with the most intense years of parenting. In the financial services world, it’s analyst, associate, managing director. In law it’s associate, then partner. Many corporate cultures are intensely “up or out.”
Challenge yourself to apply the same flexible work mindset you’re willing to try on a micro-level for a day or a week to years-long career timelines. How can these timelines and promotion cycles be stretched? We believe if women knew they had a pathway they would be more likely to stay. A mother may opt to stay in a role longer while juggling the challenges of raising young children, but it should not reflect any less commitment to her career or aspirations for continued growth.
Have a continuous check-in cycle where when she feels ready, she may enter the promotion process or take on that reach assignment. Additionally, don’t stop offering those assignments or assume that she may not be interested because she is a mom.
- Address the gender pay gap. Women still earn 82 cents for every dollar that men earn. Harvard Economist Claudia Goldin (see above) has some fascinating ideas about the market value of flexibility and how this impacts the pay gap. Organizational management expert Eve Rodsky’s work also speaks to this.
There is no excuse. Fix this now, or pay a bigger price later.
- Model caregiving at the executive level. Executive-level leaders are in a position to influence the cultural norms of their companies. It is important to “walk the walk.” Don’t just create a policy that working parents can have flexible hours or work remotely—demonstrate that you use these policies, too. Model good behavior, and create space for working moms and dads to do the same.
Conclusion: Return on investment
When company values align with individual values, everyone wins. Recognizing that the role of parent will always be a core value (and likely the most important one) for any mother or father, how can you incorporate that value into your own business? With 1.1 million women on the sideline, it’s worth considering in order to grow your talent pool and impact your bottom line.
The benefits to your organization will extend beyond recruitment and retention of top talent—you will see an impact on productivity, strategy, and innovation. We see women as key leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the clients we serve.
In fact, our data show that as the percentage of women on a board increases, the more diverse that company’s C-suite tends to be.
Supporting working mothers is also the right thing to do for the bottom line. According to UN Women, companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organizational performance.
Working mothers play important roles in our organizations, our families, and our communities. Let’s invite them to bring their whole, authentic selves to work and create a workplace where we can all thrive.