“When the pandemic started, I felt like I was just grinning and bearing it, and now I'm at my breaking point. I turned into a nanny, cook, tech support, cleaner, and mental health counselor – everything, all in the day. I was barely keeping it together…Most moms I know are reaching their breaking point.”
– Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO, Girls Who Code
Every working mom has a story to tell about the collision of work and motherhood in the time of COVID. At scale, these personal experiences add up to a national crisis: women are leaving the workforce in droves. Feeling forced to choose between their jobs and unprecedented childcare demands, millions of working moms are choosing their children.
The scope of the crisis motivated Saujani to launch The Marshall Plan for Moms, an urgent call for the Biden administration to take swift action to support moms through the pandemic.
But the mass exodus of women from the labor force is not just a matter of federal policy: the crisis also demands action from employers. In a webinar hosted by From Day One, Saujani and Kate Ryder, founder and CEO of Maven Clinic, addressed the urgent need and opportunity for employers to make working motherhood work—and steps HR Benefits Leaders can take today to make an impact.
COVID-19 magnifies deep inequities, opening the door to change
Data captures the pandemic’s devastating and disproportionate toll on women:
- Nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force between February and October 2020.1
- 80% of the 1.1 million workers (865,000) who left the labor force in the month of September 2020 alone – when schools across the country shut their doors – were women, including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women.2
- All 140,000 jobs lost in the U.S. in December 2020 were held by women, and predominantly women of color.3
The impact to emotional and mental health is equally alarming and disproportionate, with an estimated 2.4 million additional cases of burnout estimated among working mothers due to unequal demands of home and work.4 Thirty-three percent of Black mothers are experiencing burnout, compared to 25% of white mothers.5
The scope of the crisis is unprecedented, with far-reaching negative impact not just to moms and children but to families, business, the economy and society. But the root problems are hardly new. Forty-three percent of women leave their careers within one year of having a baby.6 In 2018, only 8.7% of Black American adults received mental health services, compared to 18.6% of non-Hispanic white adults.7
In the wake of its devastation, the pandemic is putting a magnifying glass on deep, long-standing inequities – and exposing the need to take real action for lasting change.
“If we ever had a time to change culture it's now,” said Saujani. “We have an opportunity to fundamentally change motherhood in this country once and for all.” And because many more HR leaders now have a seat at the table, Ryder explained, they can help lead the way.
Five Recommendations for HR Benefits Leaders to Drive Change
Saujani and Ryder shared insight and recommendations to help HR leaders drive the change working moms need:
1. Be data-driven and intentional
Good policies depend on good data. Who are the groups that need the most support? What are their biggest challenges and needs? Survey your workforce often, determine your priorities based on need, and lay out a roadmap of priorities. Explore and invest in childcare benefits, mental health solutions, and other innovative digital solutions emerging in the time of COVID.
Saujani encourages companies to form a Marshall Plan for Mom taskforce at work to really get at the data. How many mothers have left? Why have they left? Is it about childcare? An aging parent? Defining the problem is critical to finding solutions.
2. Institute real flexibility
Moms who feel they must choose between their job and their children will always choose their children, said Ryder. To help prevent moms from feeling forced to leave the workforce, they need real flexibility to support the needs of their children, whether that’s helping them adjust to online classes or simply getting them outdoors for fresh air.
Real flexibility means instituting and codifying ironclad policies for flexible work, not simply relying on managers to handle situations informally or on a case-by-case basis. It’s important to develop policies that reflect your type of organization and workforce, and to have full support and sponsorship at the executive board level.
One best practice to consider is allowing moms to work a reduced schedule during the pandemic but keep their full healthcare benefits. Another best practice is codifying flexibility at the organization level, such as designating specific days of the week as meeting-free days.
3. Empower your people managers
Executive support is not enough to make new flexibility policies successful. People managers need guidance and tools to understand policies, communicate them to their teams, and implement them in a way that brings everyone along.
Train managers to build collaborative teams that can fill in gaps resulting from part-time arrangements. Give them the tools to have direct, supportive conversations and help their teams navigate difficult situations.
4. Combat motherhood bias
Giving working moms more flexibility could backfire if your organization doesn’t address motherhood bias. Similar to combating the stigma of mental health in the workplace, you can work to elevate moms and motherhood in the workplace conversation. It’s time to be vocal and authentic about the challenges and needs of working moms, and thoughtful about addressing those needs.
Part of this work is redefining productivity, said Saujani, so that flexibility doesn’t simply result in moms working at odd hours to get the work done. It’s also about training. “In the same way we’ve been doing unconscious bias training and really trying to root out some of the inherent biases we have, we’re going to have to do the same when it comes to the motherhood penalty,” she said.
5. Let your people bring their whole selves to work
“The whole point of building diverse and equitable inclusive workplaces is not about obliterating difference and pretending it doesn’t exist,” said Ryder. “It’s about celebrating it.” Allow your people to bring their whole selves to work. Make it safe for mothers to share what’s going on in their lives.
Building empathy is key, according to Ryder. For those tough conversations, consider bringing in mental health providers or career coaches, to listen and address head on what people are really going through – particularly mothers but everybody in the workforce. Help people walk in other people’s shoes.
Learn more about how Maven can help you and your people managers support and retain moms.
1 Nelson, C., (November 2020) National Women’s Law Center Fact Sheet, Nearly 2.2 Million Women Have Left the Labor Force Since February, October-Jobs-Day.pdf (nwlc.org)
2 Nelson, C., (October 2020), National Women’s Law Center Fact Sheet, Four Times More Women Than Men Dropped Out of the Labor Force in September, september-jobs-fs1.pdf (nwlc.org)
3 Aspan, M., (January 8, 2021), Women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs shed by the U.S. economy in December, Fortune
4 Maven and Great Place to Work research report (2020), Parents at the Best Workplaces
6 Weiler Reynolds, B. (May 2014), The State of Mothers and the Workforce | FlexJobs
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “Mental and Behavioral Health – African Americans,” https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=24to attendees after the conclusion of the session.
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