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Mother’s Day 2015: a time to explore gender equality at work

Mother’s Day—since it’s always on Sunday—doesn’t typically get a lot of attention in most workplaces. Moms might get a quick shout-out during a meeting or in the office newsletter, but for most moms appreciation on their special day comes outside of work. The human resources department, however, might be smart to remember the benefits of showing their working moms some love. 

HR professionals can start by taking a serious look at a subject getting a lot of attention lately—gender equality. People including Silicon Valley executives, celebrities, and even United Nations officials have spoken out recently about the gap between men’s and women’s paychecks and differences in opportunities for advancement.

A new study from personal finance social network WalletHub takes a look at the best and worst states for working moms. (The study included all 50 states along with the District of Columbia.) The study points out that women make up roughly half of the American workforce, but they earn only about three-fourths as much as men and their upward mobility stalls out well below men’s.

WalletHub took a look at 12 metrics grouped into three broad topics to come up with its rankings:

  • Child care: The study looked at day care quality, child care costs adjusted for the median woman’s salary, access to pediatric services, and school systems.
  • Professional opportunities: The metrics examined in this group are the gender pay gap, the ratio of female to male executives, the median women’s salary, the percentage of families (single moms with children younger than 18) living in poverty, and the female unemployment rate.
  • Work-life balance: This category is made up of state parental leave laws, the length of the average woman’s workday, and women’s average commute time.

More to story than numbers
Vermont topped the overall rankings. The other states making up the top 10 (in order) are Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Washington, North Dakota, Maine, Virginia, and Ohio.

Louisiana ranked the lowest (51st) in the overall rankings. The other states making up the bottom 10 are South Carolina (50th), Mississippi (49th), Alabama (48th), Nevada (47th), Arkansas (46th), Georgia (45th), West Virginia (44th), North Carolina (43rd), and Oklahoma (42nd).

The overall rankings don’t tell the whole story, however. For example, Virginia made the top 10 but ranked 49th in the work-life balance category. Alabama ranked in the bottom 10 overall but came in first in the highest female-to-male executive ratio metric.

What can HR do?
Jill Gonzalez, a WalletHub spokesperson, says although the HR department isn’t responsible for making state laws that either hold working moms back or give them a boost, HR can make a difference. Employer policies such as paid family leave definitely help moms, as well as flexible work policies such as telecommuting. “Even one day a week would help out a lot of working moms,” she says.

Employers also can offer working mother support groups, on-premises child care, and incentives for women to become executives, Gonzalez says. The “bottom line,” she says is for employers to promote gender equality in the workplace. Pay equality is an important part of the solution, but providing the same opportunities to working mothers’ that their male counterparts have is important too.

To gain insight on the dilemmas working mothers face, WalletHub assembled a group of experts ranging from university professors to bloggers. One question the experts responded to was “What can companies do to help working parents balance home and work life?

Jennifer A. Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, suggests offering flexibility in work hours and locations as well as figuring out ways to help women return to work after pregnancies without being harmed by their leaves. Most importantly, she says, employers should encourage men to take advantage of parental leave.

“If men are also taking these same types of leaves, they won’t be viewed as unusual or a sign that a person is not committed to their career,” Chatman says. “They will become normative.”

Zachary A. Schaefer, assistant professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, advises employers to listen to working moms. He says employers should collect data from employees “to figure out what their needs are and craft policies and opportunities based on the patterns that emerge from the data.”

“While companies will not be able to respond to each person’s individual requests and needs, seeking to understand what working parents consider a ‘balanced’ life is an important first step,” Schaefer says.

Susan Mills, a partner at Polachi Access Executive Search, says allowing parents to work from home occasionally is key to helping promote a balanced life. “This does not mean that the children are home at the same time,” she says. “Rather, if a company allows a parent to maintain a home office, I find that the parent will actually work more hours.” She says she has found that she can accomplish days of work in just hours while working in her home office. “There can be so many distractions in the company offices that the workday gets shortened significantly.”

Promoting equality
The experts also were asked what needs to be done to promote gender equality in the workplace. Jennifer Owens, director of the Working Mother Research Institute, says the first step is to recognize the existence of unconscious bias, such as assuming that a working mother doesn’t want a promotion because it involves travel or that an older employee might not want to learn a new technology. “These biases undercut what companies must do to build a diverse and inclusive workforce, one that will open up new markets and new business for them.”

Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of, says the need for equal pay is obvious, but flexibility is also crucial for both men and women. “Even when women choose to continue working after becoming a parent, the primary responsibility for handling the day-to-day and unexpected occurrences that come up falls on them the majority of the time,” she says. “When a woman knows that she can be there to take care of her family when she needs to be, the same focus and dedication she gives to them can be directed to her job.”

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