Diversity Insight

Improving the Workplace for Working Parents

Although this article will be published a good while after Mother’s Day was observed in the United States, at the time I wrote it, the annual holiday on which we celebrate our mothers was just around the corner. Normally, we don’t consider employment issues when we’re honoring our mothers. However, this year I came across a recent study that placed Idaho at the bottom of the list of best states for working mothers. Of course, nobody likes to see their home state show up at the bottom of any list, and this study was no exception.

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The first reaction to such a study may be to question the data and the factors that were measured, but when you’re at the bottom of the list, it’s unlikely that tweaking the breadth and weight of any factors is going to help much. (I can’t help but point out that the same organization rated areas of Idaho near the top 15 percent of best places to get married and put the Gem State in the top half of best states to have a baby and the top 10 percent of best places to raise a family, even though we ranked 41st on the list of best states for women overall.) Regardless, the study provides an opportunity to discuss steps employers can take to improve the working environment for all parents, especially mothers.

Acknowledging Challenges to Working Mothers

Gathering data from many credible national sources, the study focused on three main issues that are very important to working mothers (and fathers): child care, career opportunities, and work-life balance. Child care took into account quality and cost as well as pediatricians per capita and included the quality of local school systems. (A questionable metric in this category that was given as much weight as cost was the share of accredited childcare centers, which clearly favors more densely populated states.) Career opportunities included metrics for any gender pay gap, the median salary for women, the gender-representation gap in different sectors, the female unemployment rate, and the ratio of female to male executives. Work-life balance was split between parental leave policies, the length of female employees’ workweek, and their average commuting time.

Those factors help illustrate the challenges all working mothers face. Granted, most of the factors in the section addressing child care aren’t typically part of an employer’s focus, but career opportunities and work-life balance are closely connected to the everyday operations of all businesses. Unfortunately, there was nearly a threefold difference between Idaho and the highest-ranking states for the female-to-male-executive ratio and a fivefold difference in the category for quality of child care, both of which likely accounted for Idaho’s low overall ranking.

Regardless of the rankings, the study helps illustrate the overall challenges to working mothers in general. Nobody wants to be given little opportunity to succeed in the workplace or have few options for quality child care during working hours.

Improving the Workplace for Working Mothers

Although the report looks discouraging for Idaho, it doesn’t mean Idaho employers don’t care about working mothers. In fact, many of you are very conscious of creating an atmosphere conducive to employees with children, typically implementing workplace programs and policies that enable and encourage a good work-life balance for mothers.

The most common policies you should consider, and maybe the least complicated to adopt, include extended healthcare benefits, flexible work schedules, parental or caregiver leave, long-term protection of benefits for parents returning to the workplace, and some level of childcare assistance. Granted, you are limited in what you can do to change the overall perception of opportunities for working mothers because government regulations have an impact on the effectiveness and appeal of family-friendly policies. However, companies that institute policies and practices that illustrate a culture of support for employees’ work-life balance will likely recognize a reduction in day-to-day stress and an increase in job satisfaction and employee loyalty.

Healthcare benefits. Many companies already offer the type of healthcare benefits that are supportive of employees and their families. Of course, an affordable healthcare plan is a primary benefit for all mothers. Every family is different, but everyone appreciates economy. Mothers also appreciate quality options, so companies that provide cafeteria-style benefits may be attractive to families looking for a fair plan that works best for them. The most common option is a tax-deferred dependent care savings account.

An employee assistance plan (EAP) can also be a great resource for mothers. The best EAPs extend counseling options to immediate family members and offer counseling for all life events to help with family stresses that may arise throughout motherhood. That allows employees to locate the resources they need to manage many daily demands.

Flexible work schedule. Allowing employees more flexibility in their schedules can help them handle their day-to-day responsibilities. Traditionally, mothers have been the parent primarily responsible for much of the daily caregiving in the family, but in modern society, both parents are likely employed. Many companies recognize that outdated scheduling structures generate unnecessary stress for employees when it comes to their daily caregiving responsibilities. By focusing on time management and an updated understanding of productivity, you can be confident in the long-term results of providing scheduling options that include flexible start and stop times, compressed workweeks, and telecommuting.

However, just espousing flexibility and support won’t suffice. Supervisors must support employees’ requests for flexible work arrangements if your organization wants to be perceived as family-friendly. That perception won’t be possible if working mothers sense that requesting a flexible schedule will result in some type of retribution in the future. You may need to get buy-in from top management and implement updated training and accountability policies.

Leave policies. A generous parental leave policy can also create a positive perception for your company. Attractive leave policies include those that provide paid leave for both mothers and fathers after the birth or adoption of a child. Companies that made the top list for working mothers offer an average of 10 weeks of paid parental leave. However, paid parental leave still isn’t widespread, with only a handful of states requiring it, and many experts continue to point to the fact that America is far behind other developed nations when it comes to parental leave policies.

Even when it’s offered, parental leave isn’t being used to its full potential. Studies are finding that many fathers don’t take advantage of such policies because they worry about the effect on their careers. Thus, a workplace culture that supports the use of parental leave is critical. But parental leave programs may not be attractive or feasible for all employers. Adopting a general paid leave policy may have indirect benefits for working mothers because they will be able to use paid time off for any purpose without having to provide specifics to their employer.

Child care. The best family-friendly companies are also adopting childcare assistance policies that go beyond providing tax deferrals for dependent care costs. An employer’s assistance can be financial, or it can be more tangible. Childcare grants are one option that helps subsidize the cost and doesn’t require much involvement in the process of locating quality child care. Some companies are more creative and have become more involved, providing on-site childcare facilities for their employees to help reduce commutes and attract a wider range of workers.

However, the added liability and the fluctuating demand of running an on-site childcare center are forcing some employers to look at different perks for their working mothers, turning instead to programs that focus on providing back-up or emergency child care. These programs are designed to help relieve stressful disruptions for employees when their regular daycare arrangements fall through and allow you to provide a beneficial service to working parents without having to invest in full-time child care.

Other benefits. While upgraded healthcare benefits, flexible work schedules, parental leave programs, and childcare assistance aren’t the only programs or policies that will make your company more attractive to working mothers, they are generally viewed as four of the most common or accessible options. Some companies have certainly gone the extra mile and have adopted policies to make working mothers’ workdays more comfortable, such as offering time and space for breastfeeding or making special accommodations to ship breast milk if a nursing mother’s job requires extensive travel. Still other companies have taken a more innovative approach to supporting motherhood—for example, by offering financial assistance for adoptions. Larger companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple have even offered the perk of oocyte cryopreservation—i.e., egg freezing!

Bottom Line

We hope it didn’t take Mother’s Day to remind your company of the unique struggles working mothers face each day and you’ve already considered the type of support you can provide to reduce daily stresses on your employees who are parents. If not, this is a great time to start.

Jason R. Mau is an attorney at Greener Burke Shoemaker Oberrecht P.A. He can be reached at jmau@greenerlaw.com or 208-319-2600.