The last two years have been a difficult chapter in women’s history. The pandemic made it clear that the world of work was never set up to support women, especially when times get tough. And we were reminded that women’s health—both physical and mental—is still so taboo that women often don’t get the care they need.
What’s more, women in the work are underrepresented and sometimes still discriminated, even though companies who have gender diversity on their executive teams were 15% more likely to experience above-average profits.
So, we have a proposal for how to truly honor International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month and women’s health all year round. Let’s come together to make practical, long-overdue changes for working women.
How the pandemic hit working mothers hardest
From the beginning, the pandemic upended childcare options, and women bore most of the burden. They found themselves with the herculean task of managing work and childcare at home. Many struggled to patch together scarce childcare resources so they could go out to work.
For some, the balancing act wasn’t sustainable—3.5 million women have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic.1 Among them, 32% say they left because of childcare.2
For those who didn’t leave, pandemic parenting took a toll on mental health. Nearly 60% of employees of childbearing age say they’ve experienced burnout recently.3 And Ovia’s depression screener data reveals how deep those problems run for working mothers, especially first-time and BIPOC mothers. Comparing data before and during the pandemic, we found that:
- Women aged 30-34, reported an 11% increase in moderate-to-severe depression symptoms. For women 35-39 it was a 22% increase and a 24% increase in reports of suicidal ideation.
- Among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) mothers, we saw a 10% increase in reports of severe depression symptoms and a 26% increase in reports of suicidal ideation.
- Among first-time mothers, there was an 11% increase in reports of moderate depression symptoms and a 7% increase in reports of suicidal ideation.
These numbers reveal a pre-existing condition. In the US, mothers have always faced unequal burdens at work. Often, women who go on maternity leave or take time to pick up their children from school or take them to doctor appointments report losing out on big projects and promotions. In extreme cases, they may get fired after announcing a pregnancy. But even when things go relatively smoothly, the culture of work can wear women down. They’re exhausted from the many daily reminders that parenting is considered a nuisance in the workplace.
The biggest day-to-day challenges for working mothers are the return-to-work process, a stigma surrounding women’s health issues and bodies, and lack of leave. Here’s how the pandemic made these things even harder—and what we can do to help.
Return-to-work is broken
In the best of times, returning to work after maternity leave is stressful, especially when managers aren’t supportive, and when women don’t have options for gradual re-entry. But over the last two years, new mothers heading back to work felt even more alone. According to Ovia’s analysis of almost 3000 parents on how COVID-19 has impacted return to work, 68.8% of working parents reported feeling like they had less support from friends, family, and work as a result of the pandemic.
Without support networks, many parents had to change their RTW plans. 80% had planned to return as soon as their leave was up, but only 44% were able to do so.
As you’d imagine, mothers were usually the ones to delay—56% of women weren’t able to return as planned compared to only 12.8% of men. Among those who changed their RTW plans, 26.8% delayed their return to work or quit entirely, while 14.5% returned remotely.
Among parents who delayed their return, COVID-19 was a one of the biggest factors:
- 63.2% said they didn’t feel safe with their childcare options, or simply couldn’t find childcare at all.
- 39.7% said they didn’t want to return because they were concerned about how COVID-19 could impact their family’s health.
- 27.8% reported that they were too stressed and needed more time before returning to work.
- 18.4% were struggling with postpartum depression.
Respondents were clear that they needed more flexibility to make return-to-work possible: nearly 60% said they would be more likely to return, and return faster, if they had remote or flexible hybrid options.
We still stigmatize and ignore women’s health
At nearly every stage of life, our culture stigmatizes women’s bodies. So it’s no wonder that so many women are uncomfortable talking about the health concerns that impact their happiness and professional productivity—things like pregnancy loss, PCOS, endometriosis, period pain, pregnancy health issues, and menopause. And since few people are talking about them, it’s easy for companies to believe that these issues are simply too niche; that they don’t need attention or support.
But that fact is, supporting women’s health isn’t niche at all—it’s about addressing the needs of 52% of the population.
And amidst the Great Reassessment—as many women have realized that they need better benefits to balance work and family—employers can no longer afford to ignore women’s health. In fact, in Ovia’s recent family-friendly benefits survey of 2,919 parents, 90% said they would likely leave their employer for a position with better benefits.
So what can employers do to help keep and attract talent? They can offer benefits that meet women’s needs, including quality support for fertility and physical and mental health. This includes programs that offer accessible health knowledge, discreet expert consultation, and screening and symptom tracking based on each woman’s specific risk factors.
We’re way behind on equal pay and parental leave
It’s 2022 and women still make 18% less than men in the same jobs—that’s just 82 cents for every dollar.4 And when it comes to paid leave to care for a new baby? We’re the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t have it.
Paid leave may sound like an expensive benefit, but it’s key to retaining employees (according to Ovia’s family-friendly benefits survey, paid leave is the most-requested improvement for working families) and it actually saves employers money.
Consider this: on average, it costs one-and-a-half to two times an employee’s salary to find a replacement. So if you have an employee who makes $75,000 annually, it can cost up to $150,000 to replace them. But three months of paid parental leave and three months of unpaid FMLA leave cost $56,250 (this includes paid leave, lost productivity, and a temporary replacement).
On top of these savings, research shows that every extra week of parental leave reduces the risk of adverse maternal and child health outcomes, including infant mortality.5 So, adding leave may have a profound impact on your employees’ lives and lower your healthcare costs.
10 ways we can fix work and change women’s history
These simple, important changes can take us a long way toward creating a woman- and family-friendly workplace:
- Offer adequate paid leave.
- Provide flexible remote or hybrid schedules when possible.
- Choose comprehensive, inclusive benefits that address women’s health concerns and offer support at any stage in their life – from cycle tracking to fertility and pregnancy to parenting and into menopause.
- Create return-to-work training and programs that help parents build a transition plan and return gradually.
- Train managers to cultivate a family-friendly culture and support return-to-work programs.
- Provide private, comfortable, bookable mother’s rooms. (Learn how to improve your lactation rooms from the CEO of Milk Stork and the CEO of Pumpspotting.)
- Establish employee resource groups for parents to build community and provide a sounding board for employers.
- Offer childcare options, including paid emergency childcare and childcare stipends.
- Make your benefits easy to understand.
- Provide resilience training and mental health services to support the wellbeing of employees and prevent burnout.
If you’re a working parent, you know how much these benefits would have helped you to be there for your family and bring your best to work.
Now, as we rebuild from the pandemic, and with women’s workforce participation at a 33-year low,6 better benefits and a more family-friendly culture are more pressing than ever. Without them, companies won’t be able to maintain the workforces they need to succeed.
So let’s celebrate Women’s History Month by building a workplace that not only supports and respects working mothers, but celebrates their stories, values and contributions. Together, let’s change the course of women’s history.
5: Ruhm C.J. Parental leave and child health. J. Health Econ. 2000; 19:931–960: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11186852/.