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Why New Programs Won't Help Working Mothers Succeed

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If you're considering implementing new programs to help working mothers manage work plus childcare plus household duties plus homeschooling, don’t. It won’t help. Women don’t need policies and programs to help them successfully manage everything on their plates. Whether they be on-site daycare centers, extra time off or assistance in finding childcare, these policies and programs don’t help retain working mothers.

Research recently conducted by Perceptyx found that one-third of working mothers reported they needed to make a change in their current working environment, and 23% had started to look for another job with different or fewer hours. Similar reports from McKinsey show that one in four women have considered “downshifting their careers” or leaving their jobs entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to this same report, the impact of the virus could “set women back half a decade.” What can we do to retain women in our workforces and protect the strides we have made in moving women into leadership positions? If these programs and policies are not the way to go, then what is? It’s actually pretty simple. It boils down to two things: empathy and flexibility.


Do managers recognize the specific challenges that the working mothers on their team face? Do they fully understand the situation that women with children are trying to manage? Our research found that if working mothers believed their manager understood their unique needs, that belief would do more to retain them in the company than on-site childcare or time off. A manager who asks “What do you need?” instead of assuming what is best can make all the difference.

A woman executive recently told me that her boss had scheduled a series of early morning meetings, under the assumption that this time would be convenient for her. In fact, it overlapped with time she needed to get her kids set up for virtual school. By not showing empathy, by not asking “What would be of help to you?” what was intended to be of assistance only created more stress. In fact, our sample revealed that women report receiving less support from their managers than men do, and other reports have shown women of color receive even less support from their managers than white women.


Flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean permanent part-time work or reduced hours, but rather, flexibility should be defined by employees, where they call the shots in terms of how much they work and when they work. We learned in our research that working women are likely to have 75% or more of the responsibility for childcare during the workday when compared to their male counterparts, regardless of their position in their organizations; from individual contributors to managers to executives, women held greater childcare responsibility.

Our analysis indicated that company programs such as on-site childcare, extra time off, assistance finding childcare or lower expectations for productivity had little positive impact on women’s intention to stay with the organization. This is the conversation of the day. A recent HBR article encourages workers to find family-friendly employers and research from PwC shows the overwhelming interest in flexible work from both men and women. The bottom line is these programs aren’t helping to retain these working mothers in the company. What did make a difference in retention? The ability to create a self-imposed flexible work schedule.

What is a self-imposed flexible work schedule? It could be the ability to work from 4:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. before the kids wake up. Then a few hours off to get them fed, dressed and ready for remote school. Work time is then wedged into the late morning before lunch, followed by time for recess outdoors. A few more hours of work in the afternoon, and then perhaps a few hours in the late evening after the kids have gone to bed. A company-designed flexible work schedule might be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, or perhaps 3 workdays and 2 non-workdays. Unfortunately, that kind of schedule won’t help women who face these challenges at all times of the day. A self-imposed work schedule allows women to choose the hours that work best for their current situation. And the best part? Women with a self-imposed flexible schedule are 1.5 times more likely to say they want to stay with their organizations than those who worked for companies with policy-driven flex-time. This is just one example of empowering women to manage their own work-life balance. In fact, the single greatest predictor of attrition for women is empowerment — three times higher than for men.

To be completely clear, I am not suggesting that companies should discontinue on-site daycare or childcare assistance or companywide flexible work arrangements. These are helpful programs for many employees. However, we do need to reexamine the idea that “programs” can solve the concerns of working mothers and retain them in our companies. On their own, they just aren’t enough. We need organizational cultures that do more than just “accommodate” flexible work arrangements for a subgroup of employees. Let’s put an end to the notion that the only way to get ahead is to work standard hours. Companies must recognize that 9-to-5 doesn’t work for many of us, men included, and that we can all be more productive and committed if the company encourages us to sort out our own work schedule. Companies must also put tools in place to enable the smooth flow of work despite asynchronous schedules. “Programs” are beneficial to employees only when using them isn’t seen as a lack of commitment to one’s career.

The pandemic has opened all our eyes to new ways of working. Companies that resisted remote work have embraced it, and companies that promoted remote work have seen its limitations when used at scale. Regardless, we now know that our employees can be productive working under many diverse circumstances and schedules. The challenges facing working mothers began long ago, but 2020 has put a laser focus on them. Let’s do better. Let’s empower working mothers to do what’s best for themselves and their families.

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