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Change the playing field for working moms

Redefine success and increase company support for working moms.

Posted December 10, 2020 by Helen Kupp

Reading time 7 min

Working moms have always had it hard. They have had to balance their careers with traditional expectations of being the primary family caregivers. The pandemic has only increased that burden, because working moms are now saddled with 24/7 care responsibilities while everyone is home. It’s no wonder that they are burning out and being pushed out of the workforce at an alarming rate. A recent study in the U.S. found that four times as many women as men are pushed out of the labor force in September 2020 during the pandemic, roughly 865,000 women compared with 216,000 men.

In fact, our Remote Employee Experience Index shows that women with children in the US face a disproportionate challenge in balancing work with childcare even when compared to women with children outside of the US. 

Source: Future Forum Remote Employee Experience Index

Based on this data, it’s clear that women pay an emotional tax when balancing life and work on an ever-constant basis. Adding to the challenge, they face unconscious bias, especially in double standards for female leaders. These issues are especially dire in the US, a nation that ranks last on every measure when it comes to family policy

Given that our government is failing working moms, “having it all” can only happen if companies make substantial shifts in how they operate and take the lead in modeling what’s possible. Now more than ever, as companies are actively redefining the way they work, leaders have an opportunity to close the gap for working moms.

Reset the 9-to-5 expectations: Flexible schedules

The 9-to-5 meetings and “always on” together environment of the office was never the right solution for many people, especially parents. The typical workday, for example, doesn’t take into account when doctor’s offices or daycares open and close. Flexibility is so important, in fact, that a study of nearly 1,200 parents with school-aged children showed that parents placed work-time flexibility ahead of salary or company reputation when evaluating a job opportunity.

Create policies around flexible and asynchronous schedules to create space for working mothers to tend to childcare and other tasks, without missing out on critical project work, decisions, or opportunities for advancement.

  1. Go asynchronous-first: Flexible schedules don’t work if you’re still stuck in wall-to-wall meetings from 9am to 5pm every day, even if they’re virtual. The first step to making time for focus work and caregiving responsibilities is for leaders and companies to switch to an asynchronous-first way of working. Sharing the top three priorities in the team Slack channel instead of a weekly team meeting makes it easier for working mothers to catch up on team updates when it’s most convenient for them. Always document offline discussions and share decisions back into a digital forum so working mothers can identify key opportunities and pieces of information that are critical to their work, even if they couldn’t make the meeting.
  2. Focus on the job deliverable instead of hours worked: A culture of working harder, longer hours is deeply prevalent among working professionals. It has led to calendars filled with more and more meetings and an ever increasing share of professionals who work “very long hours,” or more than 49 hours a week. But working more hours doesn’t always mean more value created. It also has the unintended impact of pushing out working mothers who have to make the always difficult decision of prioritizing spending those hours with their family or on their job. With more distributed teams, leaders can no longer rely on the outmoded practice of measuring productivity by clocking in and clocking out. Today, clear goals and deliverables have become a better north star for measuring work for everyone, as it should have always been after the Industrial Age.
  3. Be empathetic and normalize caregiving during the day: There are going to be many days when moms (and parents generally) will need to step away during the day for caregiving in some form or another. Whether that’s to take their baby to a doctor’s appointment, or just take an afternoon stroll in the park after many weeks of being stuck indoors from ashy air. Normalize this time, for example, by making “Caregiving” a standard profile status in your communications tool. Leaders can similarly model this norm by also utilizing “Caregiving” in their profiles or finding ways to be open and transparent about their family responsibilities with their teams.

My actual Slack status options. Note the Global Default statuses available to all employees

Flexible, asynchronous schedules don’t just benefit working mothers. Slack’s Remote Employee Experience Index showed that companies that implement flexible schedules see improvements across all employees in every dimension: work-life balance, stress/anxiety, belonging, and nearly 2X improvement in productivity. 

Source: Future Forum Remote Employee Experience Index

Flexibility is necessary but not sufficient: Increase company support

Flexible schedules are a big step forward for working mothers, but they are still not enough. In our Index, we found that US working mothers scored 50% less favorably on work-life balance, productivity, and overall satisfaction with their work arrangements compared to working dads. Working moms are not feeling the same remote work benefits when it comes to no commutes and better work-life balance, and it’s not hard to see why. A McKinsey “Women in the Workplace” study found that moms are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare. Working mothers have similarly always taken the heavier caregiving load, and in the pandemic are juggling even more.

Companies can take support one step further, and increase their support for basic family needs, including:

  1. Subsidizing childcare: Many mothers with young children must make a choice between spending a significant portion of their income on childcare, finding a cheaper, but potentially lower-quality care option, or leaving the workforce altogether to become a full-time caregiver. This is especially true in the US where half of families surveyed report having difficulty finding affordable childcare. Some companies are already leading the way like Campbell’s Soup, which launched their on-site childcare facility in 2018, and Patagonia, a company that has seen almost a 100% retention of working moms, due in part to a subsidized on-site Child Development Center.
  2. Providing household stipends for support with activities like cooking, grocery shopping, and house cleaning: Companies don’t bat an eye to spending on employee well-being benefits like monthly fitness stipends, executive and communication coaching, and so on. Working moms have zero time to think about fitness or professional development when they are struggling with the very basics of life responsibilities. Instead, companies can offer household stipends that support family basics or more general stipends that people can use between fitness, professional development, or critical family basics.

Redefine leadership

Work has long since evolved from factory masses and linear processes of raw materials in, widgets out. Today’s knowledge work is more complex than complicated, involving too many unknowns and interrelated factors to be reduced into a clear-cut process or algorithm. And while the “command and control” type of leadership may have been effective for driving higher levels of output in a factory line when the levers were clear, today’s complex problems require more collaborative styles of leadership that draw out the unique skills and perspectives on a team to come up with creative new solutions.

Research shows that not only do women score higher on most leadership traits than men, but also they are much more effective at enabling effective cooperation within a team. As a result, they are more successful at solving hard problems.

An opportunity to change the playing field for working moms

Companies benefit from women in leadership. A study conducted by McKinsey found that there was a 21% higher likelihood that top quartile companies in gender diversity outperform. Another by Credit Suisse showed that companies with more female executives in decision-making positions continue to generate stronger market returns and superior profits. But beyond profits and outcomes, people want to work for women leaders because they believe that women-led organizations are more purpose-driven and collaborative, and offer environments where people are free to be themselves. 

The pandemic showed us that companies can make bigger changes than they ever thought possible. As we redefine the norms of work in a more distributed, digital-first environment, we have an opportunity now to change the playing field for working mothers entirely.

Not only will it improve retention of working mothers and senior female leaders overall, but also benefit employees and parents more broadly.Women can have it all. Leaders and companies can and should make that happen.