Work/Life Effectiveness

How Can Individuals and Companies Better Support Working Mothers?

“She says she’s coming back after maternity leave, but I don’t think we should count on that.” 

“She’s such a rockstar. I wonder if she’ll be able to give things her ‘full attention’ now that she’s a mom.”

“Should we get everything in place to backfill just in case she doesn’t come back?”

We ask questions, whisper, and gossip because we know how hard it is to be a working mom —  and yet at many levels, we’re not doing enough to support her. But we need her to stay in the workforce.

Why? Keeping women in the workforce is good for the economy and it’s good for business. Federal Reserve researchers have found that closing gender gaps in earnings, employment, and hours worked could add billions to the GDP of each state annually. Meanwhile, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in executive teams are more likely to outperform on profitability and value creation.

What can we do to help mothers stay in the workforce and advance in their careers?

1. Offer paid leave.

Research shows that paid maternity leave increases employee retention and nurtures a more productive and healthier workforce for generations to come.

U.S. states that have implemented paid leave policies found a 20% reduction in the number of female employees leaving their jobs in the first year after giving birth and up to a 50% reduction after five years. That’s great — if you live in one of those states. However, the United States has no national paid leave policies. We’re a global economic powerhouse, but the best we can do is FMLA — 12 weeks of unpaid leave, for which only about 60% of women qualify. In order to take FMLA leave, you must work for a covered employer. Private employers with at least 50 employees are generally covered by the law, as are government agencies and elementary and secondary schools, regardless of the number of employees.

Parents count on their employers to absorb the burden of paid parental leave plans, naturally resulting in varying policies based on company size, industry, and values. According to Zippia, 40% of private companies in the U.S. offer paid maternity leave; 15% of companies with 99 or fewer employees offer paid maternity leave. 

When I had my first child, I could only afford to take eight weeks of leave. I was fortunate enough to work for a company that provided some paid leave, but I couldn’t afford to take any unpaid time off. Returning to work as a new mother was hard. I was pumping in a tiny bathroom with tissue paper-thin walls and zero privacy. My son wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, and I remember spending many nights awake at 4 a.m., nursing and sobbing, dreading that I had to get up in a few hours to go to the office.

2. Normalize bringing your whole self to work.

Leaders can make a huge impact here, especially if they are mothers or fathers themselves. If you’re a parent and you leave the office to attend a school performance or to pick a sick kid up from school, tell your team you’re doing that! 

Working parents make up about 40% of the U.S. workforce. That’s a critical number. Since dads don’t face the same biases as moms, they’re important allies for equity. If you’re a father, take your full paternity leave. Speak up about your childcare responsibilities. It will go a long way toward making moms feel less alone at work.

Working moms report higher levels of anxiety and depression from trying to “do it all.” We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work. That’s downright impossible and puts an unrealistic burden on working moms. 

The most supportive boss I’ve ever had was the proud father of four daughters. He routinely talked about them, was transparent about attending their events, and made it clear that work and family were both big priorities for him. I never felt like he questioned my dedication to my work or that I had to apologize for adjusting my schedule when I needed to be present for my kids.

3. Provide flexible policies and custom return plans.

Even for women who have and use paid leave, returning to work can be traumatic. Flexible work policies allow moms to accommodate work and childcare responsibilities without feeling like they’re trade-offs. This includes making remote options available, getting comfortable with flexible scheduling, and creating custom return plans so that each new mom can “ramp up” back to a regular 40-hour work week in the way that’s right for her.

After becoming a mom, a former colleague of mine tried to negotiate an adjusted schedule with her employer. She asked if she could take her lunch break later in the afternoon to pick up her child, then work from home for the remainder of the workday. Her employer’s response? We’ll reduce your hours. Needless to say, they lost a talented employee due to inflexible policies and a distinct lack of creative problem solving.

4. Instead of making assumptions, ask women what they want — and listen.

We all have implicit biases about women and moms. They’re pervasive and deeply ingrained in society and media. Real life, as always, is more complicated. Not all women want to be moms. Some want to be moms and face significant challenges getting there. Some moms can’t wait to come back to work while others dread it. Plenty of women who return to work become far more efficient and effective employees BECAUSE they are moms. Contrary to popular belief, work and family don’t have to be competing priorities.

Perhaps the assumptions that sting the most are the ones we face from other women. My mom, who always worked, would say things like, “Hopefully John’s business grows to the point where you can stay at home!” I would be confused because I didn’t want to stay home. Meanwhile, I once encouraged an employee to continue in a demanding role as a new mom, even though she was clearly trying to tell me she was struggling. Why? I think because we face judgment and guilt about every choice we make, we try to justify those choices by projecting them onto others. If we assume good intentions, we can be better coaches and mentors to each other. 

As the comic at the top of this page points out, trying to guess what a new mom wants won’t get you anywhere. Leading questions will only make her feel pressured. Instead, listen when she tells you what she needs — and do your best to provide it.

Moms are awesome. Our society benefits from them being awesome at home; our economy benefits from them being awesome at work. Let’s do what we can to give them the support they deserve.

Related posts

Get newsletters and events relevant
to your career by joining Forté.

our partners