Working Moms Hang In The Balance: How To Fix Work For Us
In August 2020, CNN ran a headline. “Working mothers are quitting to take care of their kids, and the US job market may never be the same.” When the pandemic closed doors, those doors included schools and child care, shining a harsh light on women’s reliance on those systems in order to participate in the labor force.
More than a year later, we’re still validating the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women. The impact is more severe if you’re a working mom, worse yet for working moms with school age children, and yet worse if BIPOC. If the system had simply given way under pandemic strain, it would have shed workers proportionately. We shed workers disproportionately, telling us the system wasn’t strained. For some, it was already broken.
Work was, in fact, never designed for women. Women, who make up roughly half the U.S. workforce, nearly one third of whom are moms. This makes moms one of the largest segments of diverse talent in today’s workforce. So it goes without saying, though I’ll say it here: welcoming women – mothers in particular – back to the workforce requires we overcome significant historical barriers that make it more difficult for us to participate.
I offer 15 ways.
This list is not exhaustive; this list is a start.
This list is not easy; this list is necessary.
This list is not the job of women; this list is the job of every employer.
These are 15 things employers can do — should absolutely do, even when a candidate’s market doesn’t demand it — to better attract, hire and treat working mothers.
Did you know nearly 30% of working women leave the labor force when they have a child? U.S. states who implement paid leave policies find a 20% reduction in the number of female employees leaving their jobs in the first year after giving birth—and up to a 50% reduction after five years.
2. PAY EQUITY
Women’s earnings drop after having a child. Men’s do not. The motherhood penalty begins at childbirth for those women who stay in the labor force, and it’s one of many drivers affecting the gender pay gap.
Not only have we barely budged the pay gap in 30 years, women experience $16,000 per year in lost wages after having a child. Mothers in the U.S. are paid 71 cents for every dollar their male (parent or not) counterparts make.
3. ADDRESS BURNOUT
Research from McKinsey over the past year shows just how dramatically the pandemic has affected working mothers. They’ve grappled with a “double shift” of household responsibilities, mental health challenges, a more difficult remote work experience, and concerns about higher rates of unemployment—particularly among mothers of color and single mothers. “These burdens,” says McKinsey, “come on top of structural barriers for working women, including being the ‘only woman’ in the room and playing an allyship role for others.”
No wonder Harvard Business Review reports a higher burnout rate for women.
4.RECOGNIZE & REWARD WOMEN LEADERS WHO ARE DRIVING PROGRESS
The Mom Project shared research showing women are doing more than men in similar positions to support the people on their teams. This includes helping team members navigate work-life challenges, making workloads manageable, and checking in on employees’ overall wellbeing.
Women leaders also spend more time than men on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities, like supporting employee resource groups and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. Senior-level women are twice as likely as senior-level men to dedicate time to these tasks at least weekly.
Finally, women leaders are showing up as more active allies to women of color. They are more likely than men to educate themselves about the challenges that women of color face at work, to speak out against discrimination, and to mentor or sponsor women of color.
Women are tackling important work because it benefits us, but we need to be recognized for doing that work. Carrying a torch is mother-freaking exhausting.
5. CREATE ENVIRONMENTS WHERE ALL WOMEN FEEL VALUED (DO THE CULTURE WORK)
It goes without saying people contribute more when they feel those contributions are valued. I would rather keep this item general and applicable to all than apply it to women, because this is a very human request. Help people thrive by recognizing, appreciating, and demonstrating gratitude for the value we create when we’re simply damn good at what we do. Ask us to do more of that; give us opportunities to explore additional value drivers.
We’re evolving human beings who want to matter; this goes for everyone. Let’s call it a big win for everyone if we do a better job as leaders of creating a culture of thanksgiving.
6. REDUCE BIAS IN HIRING PRACTICES AND IN PERFORMANCE EVALUATION
What a big topic I could spend all day on, but in the context of attracting women and moms as talent, ensure you understand those barriers which prevent or fail to encourage us to fully show up in the interview and selection process. Create conversations where we can represent all parts of us – the special talents and contributions we bring to the table as a result of our unique perspectives and lived experiences, not just the jobs we’ve performed or the titles we’ve held – and where real challenges and barriers to contribution are addressed and removed.
Women have been underrepresented, discriminated against, outright challenged and held back, underpaid and under-promoted, harassed at worst and survived at best in hostile or unsupportive working conditions, and our abilities questioned from the moment we entered the workforce. That’s every woman you know. Every woman you know.
Understand this. It requires sensitivity. The experience of the patriarchy isn’t the same as being oppressed by it, but any experience of marginalization can be used as fuel for empathy for things we do not experience.
7. TRACK REPRESENTATION AND HIRING AND PROMOTION OUTCOMES MORE FULLY
Don’t stop at measuring white women. Measure intersexuality to include women of color, women caregivers, women of varying needs and lived experiences. You’ll be quick to pat yourselves on the back if you measure more women being hired, but this doesn’t tell a complete story. Women of color, for example, lose ground to white women and men of color at every step up the corporate ladder. Track representation, hiring, and promotion outcomes for ALL, particularly for those severely underrepresented at the top.
8. ENSURE EQUITABLE PROMOTION
This includes addressing persistent gaps in talent pipelines. McKinsey and LeanIn.org confirm for every 100 men promoted or hired at the manager level, only 72 women were hired or promoted to manager.
Worry about the glass ceiling, but start by fixing the broken first rung to management. This is where the most severe fall off occurs, preventing women from even catching a glimpse of any glass ceiling.
9. SUPPORT CRITICAL WORK AROUND EMPLOYEE WELLBEING AND DEI
Support critical work around employee wellbeing and DEI, high-value efforts women tend to sink more investment in because it benefits them. The efforts themselves pay returns in terms of increasing happiness, reducing burnout, and supporting retention — so does recognition of the efforts.
Is it ironic or fitting that the leaders making the most contribution toward supporting the whole person are also the most affected group? (See #4.) Not sure, but a global survey on diverse employees showed that across both advanced and developing countries, mothers (at 75 percent) are more likely than fathers (69 percent) to be struggling with mental health concerns.
10. CLOSE THE ALLYSHIP GAP
This refers to the gap between allies who verbalize their commitment to allyship and the recipients of such allyship saying they FEEL THIS CHAMPIONSHIP. We need more proof of allyship, less lip service.
11. SECURE SENIOR-LEVEL SPONSORSHIP
Senior leaders need to actively demonstrate their commitment to hire, promote, retain and level the playing field for working moms and women in general. Everyone takes this seriously if leadership takes this seriously.
I teach my three daughters the art of self advocacy. Consider this JVB’s guide to #raisinggirls, and perhaps it applies here as well:
- Know your voice and use it.
- Take up space.
- Look out for those who haven’t found their voice yet.
- Find your allies.
- Intentionally create champions.
These rules apply as much on a school playground as they do in the workplace. Women need championship not only in matters of escalation and support, but in everyday examples of routine and demonstrated behavior.
12. DEMONSTRATE ACCOUNTABILITY
Don’t just demonstrate commitment; demonstrate accountability. This looks how it looks for you.
PUT SOME DAMN TEETH IN IT.
13. DRIVE AWARENESS
Employees need to understand the barriers women face—particularly women with traditionally marginalized identities—and the benefits of a more inclusive culture. Companies can promote awareness by sharing data on the experiences of women in their organizations, bringing forth thought-provoking speakers to drive awareness and to inspire change, and encouraging employees to openly share their experience and ideas for advancing DEI.
14. DEFINE & SUPPORT FLEXIBLE WORK
Ahhh, the double shift of work and homefront. The double-double shift experienced during the pandemic when we added distance learning. Some employers may have shown “flexibility” by allowing responsibilities and calendars to intermix, making much ado about nothing (celebrating!) when they gave parents the freedom to show their home lives on Zoom and to complete work tasks during traditionally offline hours. This is not the best we can do.
Define and support flexible work arrangements: without clear boundaries, flexible work turns into “always on” work. Women – working moms in particular – are more likely to feel judged or to be worried about how their career might be affected if they take advantage of options that make it easier to balance work and life, like working from home or working nonstandard hours. They’re also less likely to feel comfortable sharing their personal challenges with colleagues, which means they’re less likely to get the support they need.
15. STOP CALLING US WORKING MOMS
I’ve never uttered the phrase “working dad” in my life. Not once. Mothers who work are not an anomaly. Abolish notions that breadwinning and childrearing are disharmonious, even mutually exclusive. Stop genderizing roles; that’s a first step toward leveling the playing field.
This list is a start. Telling the truth of work is a start. Please just start somewhere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jess Von Bank is an 18-year industry veteran and impassioned evangelist of the modern candidate and employee experience in the world of work. As both a former recruiting practitioner and an expert in bringing TA Tech and HCM vendor solutions to market, Jess looks to broaden executive mindset to better design and deliver a workforce experience that exceeds the expectations of talent and the needs of the business.
Jess offers specialized expertise in talent acquisition, recruitment marketing, employer branding, DEI&B, brand building, and storytelling.
Jess is the Head of Marketing and Brand Strategy at Leapgen, a digital transformation company shaping the Now of Work. She also runs Leapgen’s Now of Work, the world’s largest community for HR, Talent, and workforce experience professionals.
Jess is an active speaker and community emcee, ambassador for women’s and girls’ organizations, and President of Diverse Daisies, a nonprofit for girls’ enrichment and empowerment. She lives in Minneapolis, where she races for free swag and raises her 3 daughters.
Leapgen is a global digital transformation company shaping the NOW of work. Highly respected as a visionary partner to organizations looking to design and deliver a digital workforce experience that will produce valued outcomes to the business, Leapgen helps enterprise leaders rethink how to better design and deliver workforce services and architect HR technology solutions that meet the expectations of workers and the needs of the business.