Mothers in the Boardroom: Promoting a Culture of Inclusivity
A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that diverse companies produce 19% more revenue. On the surface, when we hear the words diversity and inclusion, we often think of them in terms of gender and race. But, if we expand our definition, we see that within those groups exist subgroups who make up large portions of the workforce. Working mothers is one such group. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are currently 74.6 million women in the civilian workforce, and 70 percent of women with children under the age of 18 participate in the labor force with over 75 percent employed full-time.
According to the study, these women are sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in 1960. Given these statistics, it seems natural that companies would have numerous policies to help working mothers balance their roles as the caregivers of our future generation and as executives, managers, and individual contributors of the organizations that employ them. While some companies have come a long way in supporting working mothers—those who already have children, women who are planning a pregnancy, and those who are pregnant—we as a nation have a long way to go.
The mother’s advantage
When HR policies ignore the unique needs and lifestyle challenges of women who are already mothers, those who will be, and those who hope to be in the future, (hereby referred to as “mothers” in the rest of this post), organizations miss out on opportunities for more engaged workplaces and improved productivity. Making improvements to policies that affect women in the workplace—particularly mothers--companies create an optimal employee experience resulting in greater achievement and retention among this group of highly motivated and often highly educated employees. While this may not be true for all mothers, women are more likely than men to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29.
In today’s tight labor market, mothers make up a large pool of talent from which companies should want to draw. As technology continues to accelerate the way work is done within organizations and the hiring focus shifts to put equal priority on hard skills and education as it does on soft skills and adaptability, mothers are among the most highly accomplished in these areas. Qualities such as emotional intelligence, empathy, time management, and prioritization are skills that mothers must learn to survive the dynamic nature of child-rearing.
While we, as a society, value women’s choices around how they will manage their home and work lives, those values are not always played out in the workplace. In fact, women who choose to stay at home for some period of time with young children must do so at the cost of damaging their professional careers. What many companies fail to consider is the time these individuals spend at home and involved in various activities, such as PTA and children’s sports organizations as volunteers or leaders, is time spent developing skills and abilities that are transferrable to the workplace. Before HR policies can change to make working and motherhood compatible, employers must begin to view leadership, volunteering, and the work of parenting as valuable experiences that can be translated to roles in corporate America.
Many women enter motherhood with a solid education behind them and then continue to develop their career skills while working outside of the corporate environment for no pay. Other skills mothers hone as they raise children include resiliency, creativity, and flexibility – all requirements for successfully navigating parenthood.
Maternity leave may not be enough
Too often, organizations establish a policy of maternity leave and fail to consider the continuing challenges of returning to work faced by working moms. As the labor market tightens, those companies that don’t look beyond their maternity leave benefits will likely not be able to attract this important and valuable pool of talent.
The discussions about attracting and retaining working mothers often centers around flexible work environments. While the importance of supporting parents to pick up and drop off children, attend important school events, and be present in their children’s lives cannot be over-emphasized, general flexibility may not be enough.
To create the best possible experience for returning moms, companies should think creatively and work with each individual as they begin to plan to come back to work. What might work for one mom won’t for another. This, of course, includes flexibility but might also include things like mental health support, fitness opportunities, alternative child care options, and more. By taking a bit more time to work with each individual employee—and understand their unique needs and challenges—employers will be sending a message that mothers are valued and heard, leading to better results for each individual and for the company. Of course, not all organizations can offer the full suite of ideal resources and services to each employee – but even small steps towards that ideal is taking benefits in the right direction.
HR policies that support women
Only a few of the largest organizations have policies that truly support the wide range of personal life scenarios that accompany motherhood and allow people to create an integrated work life. For most organizations, there is so much more that can be done to help working mothers find success in both aspects of their lives. As with most things, one size never fits all. Working mothers should be able to contribute to an organization and be present in their children’s lives, finding a balance that works for them and their company. The benefits to businesses are retention, greater engagement, fulfillment, and productivity among working mothers—not to mention the additional skills and expertise that this population will bring to the organizations they serve.
To get started, here are five accommodations that organizations can offer to attract and retain working mothers:
#1 Offer a period of working part-time
Instead of allowing women with children to leave your organization—thereby losing institutional knowledge and valuable talent—consider a period of working part-time past the completion of available maternity leave. The idea being that although the woman is working part-time, her status within the company is not decreased and she doesn’t suffer a career set-back by returning to work gradually. These women should not be barred from promotions and opportunities within the organization just because they are seeking to balance two very important jobs.
#2 Support breast feeding
The benefits of breastfeeding, for women who choose to do so, are clear. However, the challenges of breast feeding and working are often overwhelming.
New mothers need a quiet, private place to pump breast milk every few hours. This does not mean the women’s bathroom. A small quiet room with a locking door and no windows--or windows with coverings—a small refrigerator for storage, and a place to store breast pump equipment makes this aspect of returning to work less challenging.
Women who must travel for work have additional challenges as they must conform to TSA regulations that require the pumped breast milk be tested before they are allowed to bring it on the plane. While companies can do little to avoid these inconveniences, being aware of the additional requirements may inform travel requirements or create an opportunity to educate traveling moms before they encounter their first TSA inspection. There are also new services available that allow mothers to quickly ship their breastmilk home when traveling for work. Companies looking to improve the experience for new mothers who must travel should consider offering this service as a benefit. HR leaders might consider asking women who have been balancing work and motherhood for some time to partner with new moms to share the strategies that worked for them around business travel and the other challenges they face as working mothers.
#3 Provide flexible schedules
When working mothers are allowed to work from home at least a couple of days a week, they feel less anxiety and guilt while they are away. Working from home allows them to spend a few minutes during the day with their children during breaks or lunchtime and be there when they are ill or returning home from school.
During the first year of a baby’s life, doctor’s visits are frequent. Allowing new parents the time to go to doctor’s appointments to ensure the baby is healthy and getting immunizations needed is critical to the baby’s health and the parent’s well-being.
While many organizations don’t offer outward objections to allowing people time for doctor’s appointments and other important events in their children’s lives, the attitude may reflect in a woman’s inability to be seriously considered for upward mobility or improved status within the company. For HR leaders, it may be more difficult to create the mindset shift necessary to create inclusionary workplace cultures than to establish the actual working parent policies.
HR leaders can help others in the organization understand that women who are afforded enough flexibility will respond with increased dedication and appreciation toward the employer that offers it.
#4 Better maternity benefits
If it weren’t for financial pressures, many women might opt to stay home a little longer than they do now. When possible, organizations should look at increasing their maternity leave benefits to extend the time women can stay home after the birth of a child. Leave policies should include the realities of pregnancy and allow enough time for leave to begin the last week or two of the pregnancy and also extend the amount of time off once the child is born. Doing so will help avoid these valuable employees considering leaving the workforce, often feeling they have to choose between their babies and their careers.
#5 Paternity leave
We often focus on the working mother when we talk about child rearing. As a society, the burden of caring for children is still mostly carried by women—a quarter of whom are raising children on their own. Establishing paternal leave policies that afford men (or the secondary caregiver) the same opportunity to take time to care for a new baby without stigma or damage to their careers, encourages them to take an active role in child-rearing. Allowing a secondary care-giver time off can make the re-entry for women (or the primary caregiver) easier and reduce the guilt and anxiety associated with leaving the baby with a non-parental caregiver or daycare.
Paternity leave policies will substantively shift the burden from women and primary caregivers to one that is equally shared among both caregivers—giving each a real opportunity to balance careers and family responsibilities. In addition, if each parent has 12 weeks of leave—or more—around the birth of a child, all children and parents are guaranteed at least six months of parent/child bonding time.
Take it to the next level
Beyond HR policies, companies hoping to balance the workforce with people from every generation, race, religion, and background need to prove that they not only support working mothers, they embrace them and welcome them to the organization.
The message ought to be that whether you’re someone who is planning to have a family, returning after a recent birth, or reentering the workforce after a period of time raising a family, we want you to join our company. The message can be reflected on the careers page on the company website and stated explicitly in job postings and in statements the company makes about diversity and inclusion. You can also encourage your employees to share their experiences on social media and with friends and prospective employees. The more your inclusive policies are shared and celebrated, the better results you will have attracting this valuable segment of the workforce.