Despite the fact that women have made great advancements in the labor force, with nearly a third of all women now serving as the breadwinners of their families, studies show working mothers still devote twice as much time to childcare than men do. The stay at home orders implemented because of COVID-19 have exacerbated this disparity, forcing many working mothers to assume the roles of teacher, daycare provider and employee all at once. To ensure that the progress women have made in the workplace is not derailed by the pandemic, it is crucial that employers support working mothers with initiatives that allow them to focus on family, while still continuing to advance their own careers.
More than 23 million working mothers in America are currently juggling caring for family members with maintaining their performance as an employee. Fifty eight percent of the more than 40 million Americans who provide eldercare to aging family members are women, with 20 percent of them also caring for children in the home as they work remotely. And that is assuming they are not among the 40 percent of U.S. working moms employed in essential professions that don’t allow them to do their job from home.
Between school closures in the spring, and uncertainty about re-openings in the fall, countless working mothers have been forced to choose between keeping their jobs or quitting to stay home with their children. Seventy-two percent of U.S. families already spend 10 percent or more of their household income on childcare, a cost that is expected to rise as daycares that are able to open must limit capacity and raise prices. These costs are an even bigger hinderance for families of color, with black mothers spending a whopping 42 percent of their income on childcare despite being employed at higher rates than other ethnicities. If childcare costs continue to become unachievable, many women may have no other choice than to leave their jobs and give up any career progress they’ve made.
The cost and availability of daycare is not the only potential obstacle to the careers of working mothers during the pandemic. For mothers who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home, the time demands and added stress of childcare can negatively impact both productivity and visibility, and could result in women being given fewer high-profile assignments or be passed over for promotions or raises.
Simultaneously shouldering the burden of keeping your family healthy from the virus, ensuring your kids are looked after and maintaining your workload to its expected standard is simply not realistic or sustainable, especially if the virus extends into next year, which is likely why 74 percent of mothers report they feel mentally worse since the pandemic began.
As the CEO of a global talent solutions provider, I believe it is critical that organizations empathize with and support working mothers to address the obstacles they face to their career advancement during these extraordinary circumstances. Here are some steps employers can take to help the working mothers in their organizations balance their family and professional responsibilities:
1. Find out their needs – Employers should get real-time updates on how the working mothers in their company are feeling, either through surveys or virtual catchups, to learn how they can better respond to their situational needs. If employers are hearing that meetings are being scheduled during virtual schooling, they may be able to rearrange schedules and allow parents to better address the needs of their children.
2. Offer financial assistance – The pandemic has taken a financial toll on many families, leaving some parents out of work and struggling to cover the costs of bills or childcare. Businesses should consider offering some form of financial assistance to help employees through these tough times, whether that be through a grant or employee assistance funds.
3. Provide alternate work arrangements – Employees expect flexibility during this time while they work to create a new routine that includes unplanned childcare. Employers should be understanding and offer alternative schedules and flexible working arrangements, which can include job sharing. If two employees who do the same job have child commitments at opposite times, they should be allowed to cover for one another when needed.
4. Expand and communicate benefits – Alternate schedules and flexible work arrangements may cause some employees to lose full health benefits if they don’t hit required minimum hours. Employers could consider expanding and relaxing benefit requirements, such as lowering the amount of hours employees must work to qualify for full benefits, so that those who need to reduce their hours to tend to caregiving or teaching are still eligible for healthcare. Additionally, many employer health plans may offer benefits that working mothers are unaware of, such as mental health services or reimbursement for daycare costs. Communicating these benefits to parents can remove some of the financial burdens of the pandemic and offer working moms a chance to talk to a professional about the stress they are feeling during this time. Finally, employers could allow employees in to apply for additional paid time off to care for family members or set up a PTO donation program so that colleagues can donate time to coworkers in need.
I disagree with the notion that COVID-19 will force working mothers out of the workforce, but if we don’t support working mothers, the pandemic certainly has the potential to set working women back both individually and collectively. The crisis has served to highlight the critical role working mothers play in workforce and at home, and ultimately how much our culture and economy would suffer without them. It is important that employers offer support to working mothers, not only to retain valuable talent in their organization, but to also prove that having a family and a fulfilling career is possible even during the toughest of times.
Rebecca Henderson is the CEO of Randstad Global Businesses.