Looking Beyond Maternity Leave to Retain Working Moms

Retaining working moms requires more than a generous leave policy.

April 22, 2019

Much has been written on the current state of paid parental leave in this country and the need for change. And rightly so. The United States is woefully behind the rest of the world. According to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, the only other country that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for new mothers is Papau New Guinea.1 But the focus on maternity leave policies implies that once reasonable policies are in place in this nation, all will be well, with working moms fully and equally participating in the workforce and climbing the ranks. Perhaps the more pressing question is what happens after women return from maternity leave.

As Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace explained in their article, “Beyond Maternity Leave,”  “The real challenge is everything that comes after those hazy newborn days.”2 A study they conducted reveals that the vast majority of working women return from leave, but over time begin to either drop out or scale back, “overwhelmed by competing desires to be present parents and hard-driven workers.3 Schank and Wallace explored the question of why women retreat from the workforce after returning from leave. Their study revealed that working mothers were “hit hard by a combination of factors that created an impossible childcare situation.4 These factors, summarized below, all contributed to an unsatisfactory and unsustainable reality.

First, despite more companies offering flexible hours, remote work, and work-share programs, the bulk of the work world still relies on in-person face time and favors onsite workhours. Further, most professionals no longer work a mere 40-hour week, meaning that workers are in the office more than eight hours a day, in addition to commute time, which amounts to the majority of their days not caring for children or the household. According to Schank and Wallace, “for the working world to continue to function as it does, and for houses and children to continue to function as they do, someone must take on double duty.”5 The study revealed that this double duty often falls on working moms.

The research also found a second complicating factor of post-leave childcare: the geographic mobility of the working mom. A 2010 United States census found that 53 percent of working mothers rely on a grandparent to watch their children for some period during the week while they are working.6 But Schank and Wallace went further to discover that many jobs locate working mothers away from their family for even longer periods, so that moms are left with no family member to call in an emergency, never mind for day-to-day childcare. This leads to mothers having to find trustworthy childcare —  and if they don’t feel comfortable with their daycare or nanny, or can’t afford these services, the obvious choice is to work less.

Schank and Wallace found a third, “final blow” to the sustainability of the working mom: school. The school day still ends at three o’clock or earlier.7 While some schools offer after-school programs, most typically end at six o’clock. As a result, what to do with children after school dismissal is a continuing concern. As Schank and Wallace note, not only does school end at an inconvenient time for working parents, but schools now frequently invite parents into the classroom for various events. They explain: “[f]or working parents, this amounts to a lose-lose choice between work and parenting —  either take a ridiculous amount of time off of work and risk getting fired, or leave your first grader in tears because she’s the only one whose parent didn’t show up to color with her.”8 In light of these choices, it’s no wonder why the majority of working mothers in the study who returned to work after maternity leave eventually decided to scale back their careers, or leave work altogether.

Schank and Wallace also found that of the minority of working mothers who never strayed from their career trajectory, most were married to partners who were either full-time stay-at-home parents or who had explicitly agreed to do the bulk of the childcare and household tasks.9 Even with supportive partners fully participating in childrearing, however, working mothers in the study explained that they felt their children sometimes just needed mom to be physically around more. They felt distracted, disengaged, and exhausted from the mental strain of trying to do it all —  and to do it all well.

In sum, Schank and Wallace’s study revealed that stingy maternity leave policies are not the key problem. “The problem is that kids continue to have needs beyond being nursed and put down for naps. And those needs require more, not less, parental presence over time.”10

Other commentators focusing on strategies for retaining working mothers after maternity leave offer some strategies.11 They stress that companies should offer family-friendly benefits and supports. In the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Strategic Benefits Survey, the company benefits which saw the highest level of increase were family benefits, indicating employees’ growing valuation of them.12 Family benefits and supports include sick-time flexibility, on-site nursing rooms, childcare centers, bring-your-children-to-work programs, concierge services for personal errands, and back-up care. Key to offering the benefits is making them easy to access. Commentators also emphasize that companies should develop a supportive company culture. Organizations that build communities of support are good for employee well-being, which, in turn, positively impacts productivity and company loyalty. This includes providing flexible work and telecommuting.13 Allowing parents the opportunity to network with each other and letting senior management model these behaviors are imperative.14 Commentators also note that companies should promote career progression and opportunities. Organizations with more women leaders outperform their peers.15 To support working moms as leaders, companies should make sure these hardworking employees have a defined career path along with access to management coaching, mentoring, supportive managers, and networking. While admittedly just a start, implementing these benefits, commentators say, demonstrates a sincere commitment to supporting and retaining working moms — a move that will only benefit companies in the long run.

1 https://www.forbes.com/sites/ritarubin/2016/04/06/united-states-lags-behind-all-other-developed-countries-when-it-comes-to-paid-maternity-leave/#7e9708dd8f15
2 https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/beyond-maternity-leave-50063/
3 Id.
4 Id.
5 Id.
6 Id.
7 Id.
8 Id.
9 Id.
10 Id.
11 https://www.hrbartender.com/2017/leadership-and-management/retain-women-leaders/
12 Id., citing https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/alter-benefits-attract-retain.aspx
13 Id., citing https://www.inc.com/women-2/why-flexible-working-hurs-actually-makes-employees-more-productive.html
14 Id.
15 Id., citing https://piie.com/publications/wp/wp16-3.pdf

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