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Inequity in Post-Pandemic Return-to-Work: Working Mothers Are Being Left Behind

By Sarah Jorgenson, Hali Punteney, Crystal Perel - July 26, 2021

“Mom? Do you love work more than you love me?”

There it was. Mom guilt tied up in a bow and presented to me by my 7-year-old. I made the mistake of asking him why he felt that way – a mistake because I already knew his answer and knew that hearing it from his wide-eyed, tender-hearted self would pummel me. It did. 

I was starting every morning in battle mode without any thought of the collateral damage. Well, that’s a lie, actually. The feeling that I was slighting my family was constant, yet I knew if I spent more than a moment in that headspace then the rest of the day would be shot. Keeping them in the fringes felt like the only way to get any work done. I became quite accomplished at the art of justifying my actions:

  • The I-do-this-for-them justification: “I work this hard so they can live in a great community, travel, and have nice things.”
  • The this-too-shall-pass justification: “It is just THIS project at THIS point in time and then the load will lighten.”
  • And my personal favorite. The one I call the Wonder-Woman-justifier: “Look at the incredible example I am giving my daughter! I am a strong, independent woman and I can do it all!”

That last one always triggers me. I was doing it all, yet I knew that I was not doing it all well.

In 2020, I recall describing my typical workday to my leadership coach during one of our monthly sessions. I made the comment that I was spending 14-16 hours a day putting out fires for work and then using the last bit of energy I had left to drag myself to the living room to talk to my husband and kids before bed.

“So,” she said, in a tone that was most certainly indicating that her questions to follow would knock the wind out of me. “You spend the last bit of the energy you have on your family? Is that the amount you want to spend on them?” 

Ouch.

Working moms all over the country, from all different backgrounds, struggle with how to manage personal-life with work-life, and this past year has been demonstrably harder in juggling the two. Moms are either doing what I was doing – compartmentalizing the challenges of each day in a most destructive, and sometimes delusional, manner – or up and leaving companies or the workforce entirely. The exodus of women from the workplace during the pandemic is poised to incur detrimental effects on diversity, equality, and advancement gains, if left unaddressed by employers. 

In September 2020, around the same time the world was hearing about Phase 3 clinical trials and vaccine distribution planning, research conducted by Perceptyx revealed that working women were taking on greater responsibility as a result of COVID, and were feeling less supported than their male counterparts in terms of flexibility and understanding from employers. The data also showed that onsite childcare, flex scheduling, or extra time off, would have little impact on women’s intent to stay. 

The following month, Vice President of Enterprise Surveys and Analytics at Perceptyx, Dr. Sarah Johnson, referenced findings from that same research to offer words of caution in an article she wrote for Forbes. She encouraged readers to reexamine their notions that programs alone could solve the concerns of working mothers, and challenged organizations to be intentional about allowing self-directed work schedules to empower female talent.

That was last fall. Have these attraction and retention concerns reached your company yet? Were you intentional about looking through the lens of empathy and flexibility when developing your return-to-work and remote work policies? Did you consider this disproportionate impact on working mothers? Replicating what you’ve done for return-to-work situations in the past – say, following the economic downturn in 2009 for example – will not suffice. 

More recent 2021 studies further confirm that women are leaving companies when there is a lack of empowerment around how to perform their work. Organizations must be empathetic to those who have taken on additional responsibilities (i.e., childcare, schooling, etc.). The work may not have changed as a result of COVID, but working moms have. New priorities, schedules, and additional challenges are present.

Allowing women to create a schedule that works for their new norm, with the flexibility to take their kids to extra curriculars in between meetings or work commitments, is where empowerment can begin. Give them the ability to work from home while their child is out of school. Provide them the trust they deserve to balance work with their personal lives.

For your company to compete for talent and to maintain any strides already made towards more women in leadership roles and other Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion initiatives, you cannot wait to make this a priority. How can you integrate, align, or enhance what you have put in place for the new work environment, so empowerment is evident to your working moms? Have you identified those opportunities to communicate your efforts towards being empathetic and flexible alongside other initiatives? Has your company acknowledged potential barriers for women openly and shared how you will work together to remove them?

Do not stop there. Intentionality must continue into your recruiting, leadership development, and performance management practices to ensure bias does not creep in. As an example, how are you preparing your hiring managers to apply the same value on competencies and skills acquired by someone always “onsite” to those gained by moms working a hybrid schedule or fully remote? Is it abundantly clear the value your organization places on a working mom’s ability to prioritize, project plan, influence, and truly integrate work and life so she is whole at home AND whole at work? Imagine the discretionary effort a whole employee brings to a position at your company. Any position.

It is apparent the challenges faced by organizations post-COVID to navigate varying and nuanced work schedules extends beyond just this working mother population. Check out these additional resources to help further inform your return-to-work planning or plan iterations.

Resources

  • The Pandemic’s Impact on Talent Onboarding & Retention Report and Infographic
  • Failure to Attach: The Crisis for Pandemic Hires Report
  • Designing the Post-Pandemic Workplace Webinar
  • The Five Pillars of Remote Leadership eGuide 
  • How to Build a Strong Culture with a Remote Team Webinar

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