With or without Congress, employers must step up and support working mothers

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

In his State of the Union address, President Biden called on Congress to pass paid leave and cut childcare costs in half to help the “millions of women who left the workforce during the pandemic.” 

We all know we can’t rely on Congress alone. In order to truly build a better America, employers need to step up their support for working mothers and the president should call them out on it.   

As many Americans return to the office, either full-time or hybrid, absent are more than 1.4 million women who still haven’t returned, steamrolled by impossible choices and opposing responsibilities at home and in their careers. If employers don’t devote time and resources to addressing gender biases and inequities in workplace cultures, that statistic will worsen.  

Look at the February jobs report. Headlines touted gains, but on closer inspection, the labor force participation rate for female workers dropped for the first time in five months, especially for so-called prime-aged women ages 25-54. It was the steepest decline for Black women since October and the participation rate for Asian women was at the lowest level since April. Meanwhile, 25-54-year-old men rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels.  

To recruit and retain a diverse workforce, employers must take into account the cultural forces in their organizations that helped push women out of their jobs. Paid parental leave is the North Star, but it’s just one among a constellation of issues. Even as they manage the logistics around hybrid work, providing social and emotional support is necessary so that women feel comfortable showing up to the office as their whole selves.  

I’ve spent the pandemic hearing and learning from mothers around the country who represent a cross-section of professions. They’re burnt out and anxious about returning to work and navigating motherhood and career. They don’t feel like their employers have factored in feedback from their cohort of working mothers. They want mental health resources, flexibility without being penalized, creative backup childcare help and they want to see their employers do more to build a sense of camaraderie around the work of being a mother.  

For mothers — especially those with younger, unvaccinated children — even as they’re now expected back in the office, they’re also likely to be the ones expected to bear the brunt of the disruption that comes when there’s an exposure in school or in daycare. Classes are still shutting down. Women will be under even more pressure knowing their colleagues will be getting face-to-face time with their managers.   

Women have been crashing into these career roadblocks for as long as they’ve been in the workforce. But, what’s changed in the last two years is their tolerance for organizations that aren’t doing something to knock them down.   

According to the payroll and benefits provider Gusto, women have been quitting at consistently higher rates than men. That gap widened in January with a quit rate of 4.1 percent among women versus 3.4 percent of men. It was even more pronounced in states where there were more child care disruptions, erasing hard-fought gains toward gender diversity in the workforce.  

The latest McKinsey & Lean In “Women in the Workplace” report shows that 4 in 10 women have considered leaving their company or have considered switching jobs. According to Deloitte Global, 61 percent of women say their employer’s commitment to supporting women during COVID-19 was insufficient. And, to retain more women and support career development, 41 percent of women want more resources such as women’s networks, leadership programs, networking opportunities and mentorships/sponsorship programs.  

It’s not just about current mothers. The other factor that has changed in the last two years is that younger women have had a caretaking awakening. They want to be able to see concrete paths within their organizations that allow for career and motherhood.   

I’ve heard from college students who want to connect with mothers to know what they should be considering as they approach the job market. When it comes to the State of the Mom, workplace culture is paramount before, during and after a woman has a child.   

For employers, talking the talk and walking the walk in supporting the community of mothers at work will convey to current and prospective employees, as well as current and prospective mothers, an organizational commitment to an inclusive workplace culture that celebrates diversity and gender equity. Failing to do so, risks losing valuable and vital talent.   

Like one woman with whom I spoke who started a job that didn’t offer paid leave in the food and beverage industry. She was hoping to start a family soon. She wrote an eight-page PowerPoint proposal making the business case why paid leave was better for the company’s bottom line. It was rejected. She appealed to her boss’s bosses. They too rejected it.   

She looked for a new job.     

Julianna Goldman is the founder of MamaDen, a platform that connects mothers, elevates the conversation around the work of motherhood at home and in the workplace and offers support to help women stay in or return the workforce. Previously she was a correspondent for CBS News and a White House correspondent for Bloomberg News. 

Tags Child care coronavirus unemployment Joe Biden Maternity leave in the United States paid leave working mothers

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