We’ve all seen the headlines. “America’s Mothers Are in Crisis”1, “Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers”2, and “Working Moms Are Not Okay”3 have been some of the most blatantly alarming, but they are but a handful of articles written about the increasing plight facing working mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Being a mother and a career woman has never been an easy feat. With women already more likely to shoulder a majority of household and childrearing responsibilities even before the pandemic, it’s not surprising to know that, since February 2020, more than 2.4 million women have dropped out of the workforce, compared to less than 1.8 million men.
While this represents a major setback for women everywhere, female unemployment during the pandemic has not been leveraged equally. As of February 2021, the total unemployment rate for women over 20 is 6%, but the unemployment rate for White women is only 5.1%. Asian women are unemployed at a rate of 7.9%, while Black and Latina women are unemployed at 8.5% and 8.8%, respectively.5 Between September 2019 and September 2020, the percentage of employed single mothers dropped from 76.1% to 67.4%, the largest percentage drop among parents of any gender or partnership type.
The decline of women in the workforce is an organizational problem, and when the pandemic is over, it will be up to organizations to take active measures to solve it. Working mothers in particular are invaluable employees that bring a critically important perspective to any organization, and as so many headlines have stated, they seriously need our help. Whether you’re hiring a working mom or gaining a new appreciation for all that they do, read on for ideas on how to make your organization more equitable!
Check your biases.
What assumptions do you make about the women you interview? The women on your team? When you find out someone is or wants to be a mother, does it change your expectations regarding their longevity, career goals, or commitment to your organization? What about when you find out someone is a single mother?
One of the biggest hurdles facing working mothers today is the unfounded assumption that they will be less committed or capable employees simply because they have also dedicated a significant portion of their life to having a family. The glaring double standard here is that we are also more likely to expect that women participate more heavily than men in things like homemaking or childrearing, so not employing working mothers due to concerns about their prior commitment to their home lives is essentially punishing them for the exact behavior society expects them to exhibit. Crazy, right?
Identifying and resetting our expectations of women is a crucial step towards gender equality not just in the workplace, but everywhere. Pay attention and be honest with yourself about the snap judgments you might be making about what a working mother can bring to your team.
Remove the word “overqualified” from your vocabulary.
Serious question: What does “overqualified” even mean anyway? That I’d be TOO GOOD at my job? Unless you plan to offer a role that’s further up the food chain, don’t let a working mom’s exceptionalism be the excuse for not bringing her aboard.
If you truly have concerns that the candidate would get bored or burn out, be transparent. Make her a part of the dialogue and give her the opportunity to express what she’s looking for in a new role. While some working moms do want to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top, others might be looking for a job that makes it easy to leave work at work. You’ll never know unless you ask, so don’t let someone’s experience be your only indication as to their needs and aspirations, particularly if it’s been a while since they’ve been a part of the workforce.
Speaking of which…
Don’t let a résumé gap be a deal breaker.
Like many of us, I was taught to dread having too many gaps in my resume, that it would send a “red flag” to my potential future employer, and that it would be a problem that continued to snowball the longer or the greater number of employment gaps I carried.
While it’s true that an overly spotty employment history is worth investigating, a long absence from the workforce to raise a family or pursue another interest shouldn’t be an indicator of inconsistency. Firstly, since women are more likely to stay home with children than men are, this bias is disproportionately disadvantageous to moms reentering the workforce. Furthermore, life is long, and our goals, priorities, and interests often change as we grow. Do you want the same things as you did 15 years ago? Yeah, neither do I, and chances are your job candidate doesn’t either.
If you’re in a highly technical industry or concerned about a knowledge gap, address it openly. Recommend training options if the candidate hasn’t pursued outside training already. And who knows? The skills acquired during time away from the workforce might be what makes a potential new hire the most valuable to your organization.
The best ability is flexibility.
I’m hopeful that the post-COVID landscape will mean more flexibility for all of us, but it will be a particular boon for working moms. Women are eight times more likely to look after a sick child than are men, and they are more likely to be caregivers for elderly family members. In a traditional 9-5 landscape, making allowances for these things often results in women taking more unpaid time than their male counterparts, causing unwarranted financial stress and widening the wealth gap. Flexible work schedules can help address this problem in a major way.
With 54% of employees whose work can be done from home reporting that they want to continue working from home after the pandemic ends, the future of the workplace is certainly in flux.7 When you’re deciding your organization’s approach, consider the variety of benefits that flexible work options might provide employees of all backgrounds.
Make your benefits package relevant.
A strong starting salary, ample PTO, and a hefty bonus structure are all fantastic incentives, but do they really speak to the unmet needs that might keep working mothers out of the picture? Try refurbishing your company benefits package to include things like childcare, elderly parent care, discounts on grocery delivery services, prescription delivery services, access to nursing rooms, telecommuting, fertility support, flexible scheduling, and better-than-market maternity/paternity leave policies. Providing a support structure that meets the needs of working moms is a great exercise in equity that makes retention much more likely.
Actively seek out working moms to be a part of your team.
Working mothers are excellent employees with a unique perspective that represent a critically important part of the DEI conversation within the workforce. Organizations like The Mom Project are actively working to change the narrative around having a family and having a career by helping accomplished professional working moms find roles in world-class companies.8 If you’d like to help close the gender gap for good, there’s no better way than hiring a working mom!
Grose, J. (2021, February 7). America’s Mothers Are in Crisis. The New York Times, p. Section F, Page 3. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/parenting/working-moms-mental-health-coronavirus.html
Cohen, P., & Hsu, T. (2020, June 3). Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers. The New York Times. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/business/economy/coronavirus-working-women.html
Joyce, A., & McCarthy, E. (2020, October 3). Working moms are not okay. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/on-parenting/working-moms-covid-pandemic-jobs/2020/10/29/e76a5ee0-0ef5-11eb-8a35-237ef1eb2ef7_story.html
Silva, D., & Miranda, L. (2021, February 08). About 275,000 women left workforce in January In ‘CRITICAL’ PANDEMIC TREND, experts say. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/about-275-000-women-left-workforce-january-critical-pandemic-trend-n1256942
Connley, C. (2021, February 09). Women’s labor force participation rate hit a 33-YEAR low in January, according to new analysis. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/08/womens-labor-force-participation-rate-hit-33-year-low-in-january-2021.html#:~:text=After%20a%20dip%20in%20job,ages%2020%20and%20over%20faced.
Barroso, A., & Kochhar, R. (2020, November 24). In the pandemic, the share of unpartnered moms at work fell more sharply than among other parents. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/24/in-the-pandemic-the-share-of-unpartnered-moms-at-work-fell-more-sharply-than-among-other-parents/
Pew Research Center, December 2020, “How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work”
About the Author
Cat Wheelehan is an administrative assistant in the real estate industry. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently pursuing her graduate degree through Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication Custom Leadership Program. She lives in Chicago with her partner, Chris, and golden retriever, Cooper.
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