Mothers are excellent multi-taskers: they can answer the phone, feed the dog, and catch the toppling toddler simultaneously. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need support when balancing parent and work roles.
Lack of support for working mothers during the pandemic contributed to 1 in 4 women exiting the workforce or downshifting their careers. And, while it’s not apparent when those women will return to the workforce, it’s clear that there’s an impact. As the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says, “The pandemic has set women’s labor force participation back more than 30 years.”
Fortunately, as a small business owner, you can take steps to support your working mothers—both today and in the future.
For many working mothers in a 2-parent household, the decision of who quit their job or cut their hours due to pandemic-related caretaker demands was simple math—who earned more? Logically, the person with the higher income should keep working.
On average, women earn less than men for the same work— 82¢ for every $1 men make, according to BLS’s 2019 report. Unfortunately, that number wasn’t much better in 2020.
Source: “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2019,” BLS.
Equal Pay Days show “how many extra days on average a woman needs to work to reach the same pay as men from the previous year.” The US Department of Labor’s (DOL) calculations show that to “earn what a white, non-Hispanic man earned in 2020”:
Thus, implementing equal pay is the first step to support working mothers.
Communication issues were a major work-related stressor during the heart of the pandemic for many employees. So many questions, so little clarity: What are the rules for remote work? What does workplace flexibility mean? Can PTO be used to handle children’s remote learning demands?
No one wants to weed through vague, conflicting, or inaccurate messages from their employer. But working mothers especially don’t have the time to deal with poor communication. Instead, they need clear guidelines to build the schedule that permits the juggling of work and home duties.
Over-communicate workplace changes via every channel available—written, verbal, and even carrier pigeons if you have to. Don’t force any employee, let alone time-strapped working mothers, to hunt for information on your business’s modified work practices, safety protocols, and leave policies.
Working mothers need options that include alternative work hours, flexible work locations, or opportunities for picking up additional income when needed. School and daycares reopening may reduce some caretaker duties, but that doesn’t mean all mothers want to—or can—return to their “before” working life.
Some mothers may return to the office full time to have space to focus solely on work (e.g., no more “can I have a cookie” interruptions). However, others may prefer a fully remote work option or even a hybrid work situation, such as working part-time in an employer-sponsored coworking space.
Some working mothers may need your support to earn extra income due to a change in household income or a need to make up the gap from lost 2020 income. For example, we spoke to a nurse working only per-diem shifts during the pandemic who felt supported when “my manager opened up shifts for me to pick up when the hospital closed elective surgeries and cut my hours.” Support means giving employees what they need, when they need it.
It’s no secret that a good boss can protect employee well-being and health, so it’s essential to train and empower your managers to support working parents.
Managers need to understand the demands on a mother’s time and offer flexibility when possible. A dental hygienist and mother of 5 shared that “I feel that employers need to recognize that mothers are the main nurturing parent and caregivers; accommodating situations that arise is very helpful.” We can all guess which parent (mom) gets the “take me to ER” phone call after a child’s unsuccessful skateboard jump.
Acknowledgment of a working parent’s dual roles can also help. For example, a contractor working remotely told us that her supervisor “expected a kid cameo of at least 1 per staff meeting.” That reduced her anxiety of trying to keep her child quiet and off camera during work meetings.
Eliminating biases and unnecessary hurdles in hiring practices can help, too.
McKinsey suggests that businesses can support working mothers by changing hiring practices to “…not question their gap in employment. Ensure that job descriptions and interviews focus on the fundamental capabilities required to do the job well, without added dimensions that could create bias against women and mothers. For example, remove requirements for recent experience or for knowledge of new technology trends that can be learned on the job.”
Similarly, ensure that performance evaluations measure actual work performance. According to the Harvard Business Review, businesses that “define effective criteria before making critical decisions about employees” can eliminate biases. For example, it’s easy to reward the “always-on” employee versus the flexible-hours employee if there aren’t objective metrics to measure work output.
Back to the contractor’s story: her supervisor made it clear that the remote work mandate included new work expectations to “get your work done by the deadlines.” In the words of the contractor, “It helped to know I wouldn’t be judged,” especially when her mom/professional balancing act meant her workday didn’t fit the old norm of 8am–5pm.
The workforce may look different now than it did in 2019, but women are still part of the key to a complete economic recovery. As Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said during an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “We need to make sure if we’re going to have a strong recovery—a strong, equitable recovery—we need to get women back into the workforce.”
Returning women to the workforce will require a shift at the national level. The DOL says, “By creating a national paid family and medical leave program, increasing the size of the country’s care work infrastructure, improving benefits and wages so that the care workforce can support their own families, and implementing tax credits and financial supplements with historic potential for reducing child poverty, these plans will create long-overdue supports so parents won’t have to choose between caring for the families they love and keeping their jobs.”
While significant changes won’t happen overnight, you can—and should—take steps at your small business to support working mothers. Not only is it the right thing to do, but an increase in customer and employee loyalty may pay you back in spades.