Why working moms are leaving their jobs–and what employers can do to retain and attract female leaders
It’s not our mothers’ workplace anymore. Today, nearly half of the US workforce is women,1 and nearly one-third of us are moms.2 But even as our numbers have grown, and even as we’ve watched glass ceilings shatter to the ground, the workplace hasn’t kept up.
In so many cases, women are still punished for having children. It happens through subtle biases, and it’s written into policies and benefits that don’t support the needs of mothers. But the fact is, companies need women to succeed, and replacing working moms who are nudged out or burned out is too expensive to be sustainable. To solve the problem, companies need to embrace family-friendly policies that allow mothers to balance their lives and thrive at work.
About the time I got pregnant–and fired–and other mothering-at-work stories
Before we can talk about how to make things right, we need a good sense of what women face each day at work. I’ll start with my story.
As a Black woman, I was taught that I should go to college, launch a career, and then prioritize starting a family. For a lot of us, this means that we’re suddenly in our thirties and facing huge hurdles. We have to balance work while navigating an often-biased healthcare system, potentially sort out fertility challenges, and then battle the stigma of taking time off for maternity leave.
This is where I found myself not all that long ago (in 2011). I was thriving in my sales job when I became pregnant with my first child. Delighted, and nervous, I waited through the first trimester and then went to my manager to share my news and create a plan for my maternity leave and return to work. It was Friday. By Tuesday I was fired. On Wednesday, still not sure why I’d been let go, I asked for the termination cause in writing. By Thursday the company had clearly realized they’d violated the law and their own policies, so he re-hired me. Thus began one of the most stressful chapters of my professional life—figuring out my maternity plans with three men in charge of my job security.
Remember, this was only 11 years ago—and this kind of thing STILL happens. Women are still stigmatized and punished for growing their families. And while a flat-out firing might be relatively rare, so many women can tell you about losing out on a big project or promotion, or just feeling the disapproval of their colleagues and the exhausting lack of support.
Right now, we’re seeing significant fallout from poor treatment of women in the workplace. Since February of 2020 we’ve been in the Great Reassessment—more than 3.5 million mothers of school-age children have left their jobs.3 And it makes sense. The pressures of a workplace that wasn’t designed for us to succeed were always there, and then the lack of childcare during the pandemic broke us.
While the unfair treatment of working moms is clearly wrong, it’s also bad business. If companies want to keep the best talent, and attract tomorrow’s leaders, they need women, and they need working mothers. It’s time for companies to invest in culture, benefits, and training that make it possible for women to stay and grow in their careers.
Here’s what employers can do to change the game for working moms
If you’re an employer, these are steps you can take to help working moms now:
- Create a family-friendly culture. There are lots of big and small ways to let your employees know that you value families, from making it okay to pick up kids from school in the afternoon, to being flexible about doctor’s appointments. You can also improve lactation rooms, train managers to support parents, create parent resource groups, and help with parental leave planning. One of the most concrete ways to make a culture shift, and improve employee retention, is to invest in tools and programs (like Ovia), that help educate and support parents on their journey.
- Help your employees know about—and understand—their benefits. Since most people aren’t benefits experts, you can help them discover and take advantage of key programs. Train managers to talk about benefits, create a benefits checklist to circulate several times each year, and review your benefits materials to make sure they are clear, simple, and inclusive of all employees.
- Create return-to-work programs for parents. Coming back to work can be physically and emotionally overwhelming. To help, consider gradual return-to-work programs that let parents build back to their regular schedules slowly. Create pre- and post-leave checklists and training to help employees feel prepared (Ovia offers training, checklists, and workshops). And train your managers about parental leave.
- Make sure your family policies are inclusive and equitable. Re-read your policies to make sure they support all kinds of families, including LGBTQIA+ families, single parents, families that are adopting or using a surrogate, people who don’t have experience navigating the healthcare system, and non-English speakers.
- Stay flexible and understanding. If possible, help employees create a routine that meets their parenting needs, from hybrid remote work to flexible working hours, gradual return from leave, and leave for parents experiencing pregnancy loss.
- Extend leave time. This is a pro-active investment that can save costs in the long term. Research shows that every extra week of parental leave reduces the risk of adverse maternal and child health outcomes, including infant mortality.4 So, adding a bit more leave may change your employees’ lives and lower your healthcare costs. Additional leave may also help save costs by retaining employees—in a recent survey by Ovia, 90% of respondents said they’d leave their employer for better benefits, and more paid parental leave was their number-one request.
- Invest in comprehensive family benefits. Benefits like fertility support, virtual-first health support, coaching, and milk shipping help build a foundation for a family-friendly culture.
What’s ahead for working moms
If there’s a silver lining to all we’ve been through with the pandemic, it may be that we finally have a clear view of the ways work isn’t working for women. And that gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild. We know how to create supportive, family-friendly workplaces, and we can work together to make it happen. It will be a game-changer for women now, and a profound gift to our daughters.
Kami Wigginton is Ovia Health’s Director of Payer Solutions. For 20 years, Kami has been a leader in sales, solutions, and client services in healthcare, wellbeing, and health information technology for some of the industry’s most innovative organizations. Kami holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama, a master of health administration from Belhaven University, and a certification in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from Northwestern University. And she’s the mother of two amazing daughters, 10-year-old Simone and 4-year-old Sutton.
1: Institute for Women’s Policy Research: https://statusofwomendata.org/earnings-and-the-gender-wage-gap/womens-labor-force-participation/#:~:text=Women’s%20increased%20labor%20force%20participation,in%201970%20(Fullerton%201999)
2: United States Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/05/the-choices-working-mothers-make.html#:~:text=Working%20mothers%20make%20up%20a,%25)%20of%20all%20employed%20women
4: Ruhm C.J. Parental leave and child health. J. Health Econ. 2000; 19:931–960: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11186852/.