In the year since the publication of Lean In, more and more women have been asking themselves how they can overcome “internal obstacles” to achieve career success, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urges in her popular, much-debated book. But while Sandberg’s advice hinges largely on what women can do for themselves, she also acknowledges some of the external challenges facing mothers in the workplace.
“Too few workplaces offer the flexibility and access to child care and parental leave that are necessary for pursuing a career while raising children,” she writes.
What happens when professional responsibilities become totally incompatible with parenting duties? Many mothers leave their positions — either to go to other companies, take on part-time work or stop paid work all together. In the interest of disclosure, I should note that I fall into the second group — after the birth of my second child, I went from full-time news producer to freelance writer.
While women like me may face financial repercussions for such choices, our former employers also pay a price — the steep costs associated with finding and training replacements, as well as more intangible consequences.
“Consider that the loss of any talented employee means that institutional memory is walking out the door with her,” said Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, which publishes an annual list ranking the 100 best companies for working mothers. “Additionally, the loss of women in the workplace means a loss of diversity of thought, which leads to lower innovation and less knowledge of the primary consumer’s mindset.”
Samantha Ettus, an author and lifestyle expert for working moms, agrees.
“Companies with women on the board perform better than those with all male boards for a reason. You need a combination of thinkers to thrive,” she said. “When you make yourself a family-friendly company, you gain access to a wider array of talent and what company wouldn’t benefit from that?”
So what exactly are companies doing to make themselves family un-friendly? I reached out to working moms to ask them what their employers did (or failed to do) that caused them to quit or consider quitting their jobs. Of the more than three dozen responses I received, a few concerns in particular proved especially common.
Based on these responses and, in the spirit of “Ways Companies Are Driving Away Employees” lists that you see pop up now and again, here are seven ways employers are driving away working moms.
1. Providing Little or No Paid Maternity Leave
It’s no secret that the U.S. lags far behind other countries in maternity leave provisions. A new mom can take up to 12 weeks off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but those weeks off are unpaid. Women in a handful of states can get paid through short-term disability plans and other programs, but those don’t last long either.
Though many argue government policy has to change, employers have the freedom to choose to commit their own resources to providing longer paid leave to new parents. Some have, particularly those in Silicon Valley, but they tend to be the exception to the rule.
A 12-week-old baby “should be with their mommy,” one mom lamented, “and for most of us we’re lucky to just have a full 12 weeks off.”
2. Providing Inadequate Space and Time to Pump Breast Milk
Though the federal law through the Affordable Care Act now mandates that employers provide a private space for pumping breast milk, some of the women I heard from say their employers are still falling short. Plus, some managers just aren’t allowing enough time for mothers to pump out what they need for their infants. Even with the law in place, women are hesitant to complain. “Often the reality is people are scared to rock the boat,” one mom told me.
3. Acting Stingy With Sick Days
Some employers don’t mind you using your sick days to care for kids or other ill family members. Others aren’t shy about letting you know that they disapprove. One mom shared that her boss heaped guilt on her for her decision to take sick days to stay home with her children when they were ill and worse, when her husband was suffering from a terminal disease. “It was awful,” she remembered.
Recently, municipalities across the country — notably, New York City — have passed stronger laws mandating paid sick leave, but even the law can’t correct nasty attitudes.
4. Watching the Clock
Americans are working more hours than ever these days. For parents tasked with picking their children up from daycare or relieving their nannies, that often means working as efficiently as they can during the day, racing out the door to meet and care for their children, and then heading to their home computers at night to finish their work.
Of course, the work done late into the night is invisible — at least compared to the work done by colleagues who spend more time at the actual office.
One woman confided that when she leaves her desk at 6:30, she’s greeted with comments like “Oh, it’s a half day?”
5. Favoring Face-Time Over Flextime
Despite findings that workers can be more productive when working from home, some managers regard the practice with disdain … even though at least occasional work-from-home days can be a lifesaver for parents with long commutes, pediatrician appointments, etc.
“For them, it’s all about face-time,” one mom told me.
6. Passing Over Working Moms for Promotions
Several women said that their supervisors didn’t consider them for promotions, even when they were achieving the same or better results than their colleagues.
“They assume you don’t want or can’t handle added responsibilities or travel because you are busy at home,” one mom said. “I chose to be a full-time working mom, let me choose whether I want the promotion. Don’t make the decision for me!”
Working mothers have had success individually suing employers for discrimination, though two of the largest class-action cases in recent years yielded opposite results. In 2010, Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG agreed to pay $175 million to settle a class-action suit by women who alleged gender bias, including discrimination related to pregnancies. But just a year later, a judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit by mothers against Bloomberg L.P. The women had alleged discrimination, including demotions and reductions in pay, but the judge ruled that the company hadn’t treated the women — who had taken maternity leaves — any differently than employees who took leaves for other reasons.
7. Handing Down Abrupt Schedule Changes
High-performing employees are often praised for their ability to adapt to changing conditions. But adapting to sudden schedule changes can be especially daunting for working parents. Women told me how their employers suddenly asked them to start working more or different hours, upending carefully planned childcare arrangements. Some parents, of course, do scramble and successfully establish new childcare arrangements to accommodate changing work schedules. Others can’t, or at least don’t want to — so they leave.
There are, of course, many other gripes that moms shared with me, but when it comes down to it, I think the common theme running through most working mom complaints is a lack of sensitivity and flexibility on the part of employers.
That’s not to say that all gainfully employed moms are perfect workers — we’re human, just like everyone else. But, as Owens and Ettus note, we’ve also got qualities that make many of us worthy of retention.
For managers who recognize that, it might be worthwhile to take another look at the list above … and do the opposite.
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