We Are Failing Working Mothers. Here’s What Leaders Can Do

by pregnancy journalist

Mother multi-tasking with infant daughter in home office

Despite some predictions, the coronavirus has not been “The Great Equalizer.” Quite the contrary, it has shown the gaping holes in our social safety net, with people of color getting hospitalized and dying at disproportionate rates, and with lower-income Americans continuing to work while the wealthy shelter at home. 

The pandemic has affected men and women differently, too. Although men are at a graver health risk, it is women who have shouldered much of the economic burden. “One in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential,” according to The New York Times, likely because women make up 80% of healthcare workers and hold two-thirds of low-wage jobs

In addition to working outside the house, women continue to perform the majority of duties within it, as well. Even before the pandemic, research suggested they spend an average of two extra hours per day caring for the home and children. (That is, if they have a partner: Nearly 80% of single parent households are headed by women.)

With schools and daycares closed, and our nation’s families spending more time at home, this gender inequality is already having detrimental effects on women’s work lives. Several articles describe how women have been forced to prioritize their male partners’ careers at the expense of their own. In the Times, Candace Valenzuela, a Democratic congressional candidate, put it most succinctly: “The way we’ve been able to MacGyver a career as a woman is completely under attack by a global pandemic.”

Pushing women out of the workplace — or off the leadership track — is the last thing we need right now. Although much responsibility for deep-rooted structural change falls on our government, businesses can play their part, too. Here are three ways leaders can make sure their organizations do not fail working mothers during the pandemic and beyond. 

Encourage Flexibility for All 

While most white-collar workplaces are offering their employees the ability to work remotely, that is merely one piece of the puzzle. They should also be supporting flexible hours and flexible expectations. “We need to provide more flexibility than what our employees are accustomed to,” explained Kathie Patterson, CHRO of Ally Financial. “A lot of employees say, ‘There’s no way I can sit at a desk for eight hours with my kids running around.’ So it’s really about helping our leaders understand how to listen and figure out how to provide greater flexibility in the workday.”

It is important for leaders, however, to avoid subtly or overtly extending this flexibility only to women or parents. Instead, leaders should expressly encourage every employee to use these policies, and should also model their use themselves. Doing so will reduce guilt and shame for those who need the flexibility, as well as eliminate the stigma that flexible policies are designed for lazy or uncommitted individuals.

Ultimately, my hope (which I share with many), is that these increased levels of flexibility will continue even once the pandemic has ceased — helping usher in a new era of work-life integration for all employees. As Maria Floro, an economics professor at American University, told Business Insider: “I hope that from this pandemic, businesses encourage change in the way that jobs are organized, that you have flexible hours, parental leave — not just maternity leave — for both men and women in the workforce. There has to be a change in office culture.”

Conquer Biases

When men have children, they experience a “fatherhood bonus,” wherein their earnings increase by an average of more than 6%. Women, on the other hand, suffer from a “motherhood penalty,” wherein their wages decrease by 4%. Though many factors are involved, including job switching or reduced hours, one researcher wrote that one of the causes may be employers who “discriminate against mothers by assuming lower work commitment or performance.”

Even though one landmark longitudinal study showed that mothers are, in fact, more productive over their careers, this type of bias remains common — and it is up to leaders to eliminate it. “As a leader, you can foster an environment where questioning women’s competence on the basis of their caregiving roles is not accepted,” professors Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Now is not the time to encourage the ideal-worker norm — not only will you look out of touch and callous… you will entrench the gender biases that cast women as inherently less competent and valuable.”

In referencing the “ideal-worker norm,” the professors were referring to the idea that hard work equates to hours spent in the office — also known as the “face time bias.” With many employees working remotely, now is the perfect time to slay this bias, too. As Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab, wrote in the Times: “I hope this moment finally pushes us toward a new and better understanding of professionalism and performance that’s fairer to mothers and caregivers. I hope it forces us to recognize that even as the dog barks, the kid cries, and the bowl clinks… good work can be done anywhere — and by anyone.”

Ask What They Need

When leaders believe an employee is overwhelmed by her duties at home, they might not offer opportunities for advancement, assuming she would not want the additional responsibility. Or, they might assume their virtual happy hours are a welcome social outlet, when in reality the employee would have rather spent that precious child-free time finishing a project. Luckily, the solution to these challenges is simple: Ask working mothers what they need.

“Let’s not be the deciders of the person’s career,” said Maribeth Bearfield, the CHRO at Bright Horizons. “Instead, talk to that employee, talk to that woman and ask, ‘What do you want to be involved in? How do we help you advance your career and integrate family and work?’” Bearfield encouraged holding these conversations “in the moment,” and not waiting for performance reviews, when opportunities may have already passed. 

With that in mind, leaders should urge their managers to communicate frequently with their direct reports, discussing their changing needs and preferences — and helping them determine how they can contribute in a way that works best for them. “At the end of the day, we each want to make impact and feel valued,” Mita Mallick, Unilever’s head of diversity and inclusion, wrote at Working Mother. “And in these uncertain times, we are all anxious about how we may be judged, misunderstood or misrepresented.”

In addition to presenting countless challenges, the pandemic has also presented countless opportunities to emerge as a more just and equitable society. Helping working mothers flourish is merely one variable — albeit an important one. As Ammerman and Groysberg concluded, “Instead of standing by as women’s careers become casualties of the crisis, you can cement your women employees’ commitment and maximize their contributions. Not only will you be helping to maintain our collective progress toward gender equality, you’ll be setting your business up to leverage its benefits in a future that will surely need it.”

This content was originally published here.

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