I have always been an ambitious and hard worker. Over the course of my accounting career, I’ve held executive-level positions and have accomplished a lot. Yet everything changed when I became a mother two years ago. I experienced firsthand the negative effects of unconscious biases—social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness—that working mothers face. Even in company environments that have rules or processes in place for working mothers, these biases can play out and have a damaging effect. Becoming more aware of them and talking openly about the issues can help companies create a more supportive and inclusive environment.
Working mothers have tremendous pressure to perform their jobs and be dedicated employees while also taking care of their families. And while these biases can be formed against both mothers and fathers with families, women tend to face the most pressure—as well as what are sometimes referred to as “motherhood penalties.”
Within the normal, everyday operations in a business or company, these biases are hardly ever spoken about openly or consciously. Often, it’s either because employers don’t recognize that there’s an issue to fix or that working mothers are hesitant to ask their employers for help. Yet if left untreated, these biases can create an organization with low morale, decreased retention rates, and decreased productivity.
By bringing these issues to the forefront, managers and employees can have increased self-awareness of how the biases affect decision-making processes in areas such as hiring as well as compensation and benefits. Greater awareness also helps create an environment of support for mothers, which can lead to an overall positive impact on the company’s culture.
Working mothers often feel pressure to limit their time off after giving birth; they may also be turned down for promotions due to their supervisors not believing they can do their job due to family commitments. According to Fast Company, “In 2015, 69.9% of mothers with children under age 18 were in the labor force (that’s over a third of working women), but mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs, less likely to be perceived as competent in the workplace, and typically will be paid less than their male colleagues with the same qualifications” (bit.ly/3aOUkma).
A lot of stress is put on working mothers because we’re constantly trying to juggle the dual challenges of having a successful career and being a committed mother at the same time. As a result, we tend to separate our personal life from our work life—and struggle to prove that we can do both.
Trying to juggle work-life balance is real for working mothers and, without the support of their employers, can lead to a detrimental impact on the company itself. My own experiences demonstrate what can happen when working mothers don’t have the support of their organizations.
I was scheduled to be on maternity leave for three months, but instead of focusing on my baby and adjusting to being a new mom, I felt an innate pressure to continue doing work during that time. As a vice president of finance, I felt an unspoken expectation that I would still be accessible even though I was out of the office. Rather than push back and give specific restrictions on my availability, I was scared I would lose my job or be seen as “less than” or not as dedicated.
I also suffered postpartum anxiety after my son was born. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell my employer I needed more time to recover or to try and adjust my work schedule so that I could slowly get back into my work routine. Because I felt a lack of support from upper management, I was worried about being perceived as weak and felt compelled to continue as if nothing had changed.
I’ve also made excuses for my son’s doctor’s appointments and even apologized for taking time off to care for him when he was sick. I’ve heard snide comments from coworkers and supervisors when I’ve had to leave work early because I had no one to watch my son.
Before I had my son, I had no problem staying late or working on the weekends, but after having my son I realized I needed to work smarter and more efficiently. That doesn’t mean I’m working any less than the next employee. Yet, as Alexia Fernández Campbell wrote in The Atlantic, there’s a perception “that mothers are less devoted to their jobs than childless workers.” Known as “the Maternal Wall” or “the New Glass Ceiling,” it’s “led to a wave of claims of gender discrimination based on parental responsibilities, which now make up a growing number of lawsuits against American employers” (bit.ly/2OvjooG). Most of those types of lawsuits typically lead to judgment in favor of the plaintiff and compensation for the victims.
Here are a few ways companies can show support for working mothers:
- Create a family leave policy. Include not just mothers, but also fathers and adoptive or foster parents. Having a comprehensive family leave policy shows that the company recognizes the support that’s needed for all new parents and the importance of recovering through the postpartum period for working mothers.
- Talk candidly about the negative assumptions made about working mothers. In order to rectify an issue, an organization must address that there’s a problem to begin with. Being transparent with your executive team about some of these stereotypes will allow for an open dialogue in creating a more substantial solution for the company and employees.
- Promote a work environment that encourages employees to take time off, allows for flexible working schedules, and enables employees to work from home.
- Offer ancillary benefits, such as childcare reimbursements, dry cleaning services, and gym or yoga memberships. Time and self-care are essential for working mothers. Anything that can offer convenience would be a tremendous help.
- Be prepared for absences. Cross-training your teams can mitigate risk and ensure successful completion in the day-to-day responsibilities when an employee is on maternity leave.
- Create a comfortable, private lactation room with a refrigerator. It can be a relief if working mothers know there’s a designated lactation room without having to ask to use an empty office space. The room also signifies a very clear purpose to the rest of the company and is a visible reminder to everyone that the company cares. Working mothers will feel more supported.
- Be proactive in communicating support. It’s very tough for working mothers to come back to work after having a child. It can be daunting, and some may feel very self-conscious about how to adjust to being back into their job and career while balancing motherhood. So make it very clear to all employees that the company is there for them and values and supports them. Just hearing kind, encouraging words can go a long way.
Supporting working mothers can lead to more empowered, happier employees, which can result in better leaders, low turnover, high company morale, and more dedicated employees.