Original article published on Fairygodboss.com.
Since 2014, females represent the majority of the population who have completed four years of college or more, and this status continues to grow year over year. Meanwhile, over 9.1 million women ages 25 to 54 cited “home responsibilities” as the main reason for not working — or looking for work — in 2014, an increase of about 1.5% since 2004.
So, there it is…. The relative number of women receiving advanced degrees continues to increase, while the percentage of working-aged women actually participating in the labor force is declining. Employers have a chance to capitalize on the positive opportunity this presents for the success of their businesses and to improve the lives of talented women who can contribute.
Outside of formal degrees and labor statistics, it’s hard to argue that well-educated mothers aren’t a highly desirable talent segment to have working for your team. In most cases, they gracefully serve as CEO of their households while being absolute bosses at their paying jobs. They have somehow mastered the art of simultaneously taking a conference call while cleaning up vomit, refilling the toilet paper and delivering next week’s strategic planning agenda. (I know many highly capable men that witness this daily dynamic in dumbfounded amazement.) It seems to be a gene in that Y chromosome that can’t be explained — only worshipped.
Most companies are getting serious about some form of diversity-related changes in the workplace that either increase female representation in leadership positions or create a more “inclusive” environment when they get there. But these changes don’t help women who are also mothers succeed without going insane, without feeling a constant sense of underachievement in one or more areas of their life or without constantly depleting herself to the point of developing chronic health issues.
So, how can companies better meet the needs of this valuable employee segment?
There are the obvious ideas that come to mind and continue to float in and out of the board room: longer maternity leaves, suitable nursing facilities and better flexible working policies, to name a few. Some proposals move forward with varied degrees of success. Unfortunately, many are met with a disappointing veto from top executives when it comes time to “pull the trigger.” There’s often some reason for management to justify its lack of strategic investments in this area: “it was a bad quarter,” “it will exclude men,” “we need to sharpen our focus.” The list goes on.
Businesses all over the world, in every industry, get hyper-creative when it comes to bringing a new product to market, building an acquisition strategy to outpace the competition or securing another round of venture-capital funding to fuel its commercial growth plans. So, let’s apply the same truly innovative thinking to this rampant issue, which continues in one of the most highly developed nations in the world.
I am part of several online mothers’ groups that span the U.S. and a couple local ones in my community. I asked a single question to all members who are working mothers in these groups: “What is your biggest struggle?”
Within the responses, there were a few recurring themes, which I’ve devised five solutions for, in hopes that these may help spur the innovation of their potential employers.
1. Offer onsite mental health counseling for chronic issues such as postpartum depression, burnout and chronic anxiety.
Heck, let’s even include non-scientific, yet rampant emotional challenges like “mom guilt.”
The World Health Organization estimates that 40% of American workers and 13% of parents are impacted by the now officially-defined medical condition, “burnout.” Add together those figures and subtract the absence of adequate support systems and you get a breeding ground for exhaustion, increased mental distance from or feelings of negativity towards various aspects of one’s life and reduced professional efficacy.
Some employers do offer virtual employee assistance programs (EAPs), where you are instructed to go on a website or find a hotline and hope the service behind it feels somewhat human. My experience with these has been that by the time you actually find someone decent to speak with, you’re more insane than when you started the search and have lost hours of your day. With 25% of “young mothers” now reporting severe levels of loneliness and depression (up nearly 50% from the previous generation), this solution doesn’t solve the core desire for more human connection and support during a very challenging time in one’s life.
Many women look for mental health support outside the workplace, only to find that the support they’re in most need of either doesn’t exist at all or happens offsite during working hours, making participation near impossible. Ironically, similar support groups for fathers tend to offer evening-hour options while the equivalent mothers’ groups do not.
When I was experiencing postpartum depression after the birth of my first child, local counselors were scarce. The few that existed required booking weeks, sometimes months in advance. (Not so helpful when you’re in the trenches of extreme hormonal fluctuations, new parenthood fog and experiencing every day as if it were a yearlong struggle.)
Rally cry to employers: Explore new benefit models that involve hiring or contracting professional mental health providers to be accessible onsite, on demand and on task to expertly support the mental health of your working mothers. This is extremely likely to boost their productivity both in and out of the office.
2. Offer functional household benefits, such as stipends for housecleaning and/or laundry services.
Have you ever come home after an 8+ hour workday at the office just to have at least five more arduous hours of work waiting at home? From routine household labor to complex psychology experiments with uncivilized human beings and all the things in between, every working mom in America is likely shaking her head vertically.
This. This is where a small amount of investment makes a world of difference.
We’ve made great strides towards true gender equality in America with the percentage of women occupying leadership roles in traditionally male-dominant fields such as law, medicine and politics continuing to rise. But a big mistake is to only focus on gender equality in the workplace and neglect to think about gender equality in the home.
Despite the fact that the percentage of women earning more than their male partners continues to rise (currently at 29%), there is still a widespread belief or accepted cultural norm that women should take on the bulk of domestic responsibilities, too. Research has shown that married American mothers spend almost twice as much time on housework and child care than do married fathers and that today’s American mothers (employed or not employed) spend more time on child care than moms in the 1960s.
Time is not expanding in proportion to how much responsibilities and expectations of today’s working mothers are. So, it’s logical to conclude that either an olive branch needs to be extended, or else negative effects within the physical, emotional and/or spiritual health of the individual will inevitably ensue.
For many of the women I’ve heard from, the “olive branch” looks like an ability to outsource some of their domestic responsibilities without creating strain on their financial well-being.
Rally cry to employers: Whether it’s offering a stipend to be used towards domestic home services, offering free onsite laundry/dry-cleaning service for office-based workers or some other system yet to be discovered, consider a more holistic view of how you can help drive gender equality both in and out of the workplace and better serve your employees (females and beyond) in those areas.
3. Do the math on childcare and bridge the earnings versus cost gap to help make working worth it.
One of the most heartbreaking recurring stories I witness is from the super-talented mother who wants to use her skills in the world (by working) but actually can’t afford to work. In many such cases, the childcare bills alone would exceed her income, leaving her at a net financial loss at the month’s end. Often, her skills are in the employment sectors most needed for the positive evolution of our society: social work, education and public service, to name a few.
Can’t afford to work. Let’s just take a moment to ponder the absurdity of that statement. (Sigh)
In other individual situations, it’s a matter of doing the math and getting backed into a certain schedule that is often less desirable for the employer and not even actively sought after by the worker. One mother summed up this common scenario nicely in her response to my question: “I actually just bumped down to part-time because if I put my baby in childcare, I’d basically take home a part-time salary, so I figured I’d just raise my kid myself.”
There are loads of factors contributing to this reality, and it’d be naïve to believe that changes in employer policies alone will fix it. Long-term progress is certainly dependent on policy reforms in a number of influencing areas such as early childhood education economics, salary levels for government-funded workers and tax structures. But until then, the private sector can start to model potential blueprints for the future as they create changes within their own span of control.
Rally cry to employers: Assign this challenge to the best economics guru on your team, or contract one to develop a solution. Take a look at the average costs of childcare in your region and make sure the numbers allow a mother (who wants to work) to be able to give her time and value in exchange for positive financial gain at the end of each month. She’ll gain a sense of wholehearted fulfillment and you’re likely to gain a rock star employee who is as loyal as they come.
4. Use “healthy furniture.”
Yes, I think I just made up that unofficial term for things like treadmill desks, balance-ball chairs and under-desk elliptical units in the workplace. Many moms will admit that their ability to prioritize exercise decreases significantly when they are knee deep in balancing kids’ needs with work priorities and barely clocking in a mere six hours of sleep a night before pushing through it all over again.
One working mother responded in a recent social media post about this topic: “Between work, mothering, housemaid, errand runner and wife, there is not much time and very little energy for me to exercise. I’m overweight and could use it, but it’s just not a priority at the moment.”
While this widespread lack of physical activity obviously poses health concerns and self-esteem issues, it is also fundamentally linked to low energy. The human body is like a power plant. It doesn’t automatically come stocked with energy; it needs to create it. In our case, we create it through movement and exercise.
Rally cry to employers: Want to fight the 3 PM employee crash and line at the coffee machine? Give the means to and encourage everyone to walk or move their bodies for at least 30 minutes earlier in the day. You’re likely to see afternoon productivity levels skyrocket and moms all around the office beam with a sense of accomplishment they’ve long been missing.
5. Give some “little big things.”
I get it. Some readers may work at start-ups, underfunded public service jobs, non-profits or seriously cash-strapped businesses. So, the prospects of offering some of the above might truly not be feasible. But there are ways you can support working mothers in meaningful ways that don’t cost a dime.
The response I heard the most in my online discussion groups went something like this: “I try so hard to do it all, but it never feels like it’s enough.”
Perhaps a morning email drop with a meditation link or an uplifting text message could help a working mom just feel worthy of everything it is she fights for each day. Assign the task to an intern, have your communications team factor it into their 2020 strategic plan or take it on as a personal leadership challenge.
Rally cry to employers: If you want to secure employee loyalty, make yourself an indispensable part of their day through simple acts of positivity and encouragement.
In closing, I want to be clear: This article is not about creating a picture of victimhood or martyrdom for working moms. Nearly every “working mom” I have met or talked to fully accepts the decisions she has made to be in that category and wears all her hats with a deep sense of pride (myself included).
The point to be made is that there is so much untapped potential from this segment of the labor market that employers aren’t unlocking strategically. Simultaneously, there is so much opportunity to make the journey of working motherhood feel more like the empowering, beautiful, fulfilling journey that it is. All the solutions I’ve mentioned above (and so many more yet to be discovered) can serve as value-generating win-win solutions for both sides of the talent-employer equation (hooray!).
Now, if you’ll excuse me… I need to get back to finishing a client presentation, changing the laundry over and taking my prenatal vitamins before my toddler wakes up from her nap in approximately seven minutes.