Working moms still face major issues when trying to climb the corporate ladder

Working moms still face major issues when trying to climb the corporate ladder
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The workplace is in need of a redesign; especially in business practices that impact working mothers and all families.

We have seen the possibilities for change directly in the tennis world as the U.S. Open recently announced their commitment to change their seeding approach in their late summer tournament following the re-entry of Serena Williams to the court after her 13-month maternity leave.

Williams’ drop in rankings from No. 1 to No. 453 led to a “pregnancy penalty,” from outdated policy rooted in an annual ranking snapshot that gave no consideration to childbirth. The ranking did not differentiate from injuries and sickness that typically sideline an athlete’s standing.


Williams had been placed in an unseeded position in the French Open resulting in a tougher set of competitors in the earlier rounds of the tournament.

In its conciliatory move, the U.S. Open refused to wait for the World Tennis Association to revise its policy. Wimbledon followed suit using their discretionary policy to place Williams within in the top 32.

"I think and I hope — and it should be under review — to change these rules. Maybe not in time for me, but for the next person," Williams said in an interview with Good Morning America. "Maybe she's 25 and she wants to have a baby, but she doesn't want her career to be over. She wants to continue to play. So I think it's important to have those rules" reviewed,” USA Today reported.

Tennis, like most industries, organizations and companies, adheres to norms and rules that did not unilaterally anticipate working moms. Sadly, most face a workplace designed for male breadwinners with stay-at-home wives.

While there is no federal statute requiring the amount of paid leave time for employees who are new parents, the Family Medical Leave Act allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for parents to care for a newborn, with no threat of job loss. Some states have their own paid leave laws.

As the Director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, I advise students that in order to have the greatest career success, choose wisely in their partners, supportive systems and companies — especially if they anticipate having children.

According to a 2018 Pew Research report, today’s working moms are spending significantly more time on paid work and childcare than they were in 1965. Mothers in the labor force have increased from 47 percent in 1975 to 71 percent in 2017 totaling over 24 million working moms according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even with greater presence in the workforce and increased father participation, working moms still face significant issues that can make for a steeper climb up the corporate ladder.

At work, women must break through a "maternal wall" of bias that has negatively impacted their hiring, promotions and pay. A recent New York Times investigative report indicates that discrimination is still rampant in the workplace for pregnant women even in some of the country’s largest and most reputable companies.

Still, companies can preempt and influence the working-mom value equation.

Though women are in the pipeline at greater levels than ever before, some are exiting to roles where they are more valued, have more flexibility, or they potentially opt out of the workforce altogether. Companies can clearly influence a working mom’s cost benefit analysis of her job by putting systems and practices in place systems that support families.

Before the leave, managers can discuss and negotiate a return to work plan that enables a new mother’s transition back to work while getting the job done.

In addition to maternity leave, management can offer paternity leave to set the stage for shared co-parenting and appreciation of child-care and home management.

Once back at work, a new mother needs a private, clean, accessible mother’s room to extend her commitment to breastfeeding.

Managers should focus on contribution and results, not just facetime. If the job gets done, does it matter where the work took place?

Leadership should ensure that promotion and performance assessments are bias-free to ensure new moms have the opportunities they desire.

If the job is not showing longer-term possibilities, a sense of belonging as a working mom, financial reward, some flexibility to be a parent along with job satisfaction, that calculation is easy and it’s time to exit. When that return is high, engagement and loyalty is also deep and working moms thrive.

Evolving organizational work culture is a smart business move. Companies can win the competition for increasingly scarce talent and attract millennial women (and men) by creating a workplace that meets the needs of today’s employees.

A recent survey indicates that 82 percent of working parents would be more loyal if given workplace flexibility. And 24 percent of them would even take a pay cut to gain telecommuting flexibility.

The latest Lean In and McKinsey & Co. study on women in the workplace found that the companies showing greatest retention and advancement of women make the case for diversity, treat women fairly in the promotion and review process, give flexibility, and focus on accountability.

In the face of all of the challenges women face, a supportive workplace and manager can make a huge difference. It did for me.

As a brand marketing director at the Quaker Oats Company in 1999, I returned from my first maternity leave to an environment that welcomed me and promoted me to vice president before my second leave in 2001, a rare move then and now.

A culture that allowed for two visits a day to the mother’s room enabled me to continue my personal commitment and set the norm for other moms. In addition, a peer-mentoring group and a supportive boss helped me navigate this major life transition with candor and transparency while still growing and advancing my career.

It is time to make work workable for working parents and create workplaces by design, not default.

Ellen C. Taaffe is a clinical faculty member and director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.