The pandemic has had, as a McKinsey Global Institute report on COVID-19 and gender calls it, a regressive effect on gender equality.
According to their calculations, the jobs of women were 1.8 times more vulnerable during the crisis than those of men. For working mothers, these numbers were even higher. Because as schools, nurseries, and daycares closed, mums ended up having to work from home while simultaneously caring for the kids.
Bearing the brunt of effectively working two full-time jobs at once resulted in a variety of negative effects. Below, we’ll not only dive into what these effects were.
You’ll also find out how business leaders can (and why they should) support working mothers moving forward.
- How the pandemic disproportionately affected working mothers
- Why you should care: The business case for mothers in business
- 7 ways to support working mothers
How the pandemic disproportionately affected working mothers
The reality of gender inequality in society is nothing new.
Despite continuous efforts to level the playing field, women often remain disadvantaged in a world designed by, and for, men (we highly recommend reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men). This is also true for women in the labour market, and in particular for working mothers.
In 2007, the term motherhood penalty was coined to describe the phenomenon that working moms face a wide variety of disadvantages compared to others, ranging from lower salaries to more rejected job applications. For example, research found that while men’s salaries increase around 6% when they have children, those of women actually decreased by 4%.
And the pandemic only widened the gap between (working) men and women even further. The U.S. Department of Labor concluded that the pandemic pushed women’s labour force participation decades back in time. They found that the participation rate in 2021 was only 55.8%, the same as in 1987.
And this widening gap is in large part due to the lack of adequate support for working mothers. The absence of available childcare services resulted in many working mums having to take on full-time care (and often education) of their children, whilst still trying to work the same amount of hours in their contracted job.
As lockdowns hit various countries, mothers across the globe all of a sudden had to combine the roles of employee, mother, and teacher. In many cases, especially for single mothers, maintaining the household was added to this list.
No wonder McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report found that women are increasingly burned out, with 42% of women saying they have been often or almost always burned out.
Why you should care: The business case for mothers in business
Employers and employees alike are increasingly aware of the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. And Millennial and Gen Z professionals are even actively avoiding companies without a diverse workforce. But better chances of hiring talent shouldn’t be the only reason for business owners to strive for more diversity.
Women bring in different perspectives, insights, and ideas than men. Due to these different experiences and skills of women compared to men—and people who do not identify with either gender—a gender-diverse workforce helps businesses achieve more than they would with single-gender teams.
As a Gallup study found, gender-diverse teams benefit from:
- Better problem-solving within the team
- Easier access to resources and knowledge
- Ability to serve a more diverse audience
- Increased attraction and retention of female talent
Working mothers further add to this due to their gained experience from raising and being responsible for the care of their children. Mothers tend to bring a variety of additional skills to the table, from resilience and adaptability to the ability to multitask and prioritise better.
And last but not least, the labour market is currently witnessing unprecedented shifts and shortages of workers across industries. Although the initial shock of the pandemic seems to have eased somewhat, we are currently (in 2022) still experiencing the aftermath of the Great Resignation, and companies are struggling to fill their open positions.
Completely overseeing a large portion of the available labour force would mean you’re strongly disadvantaging yourself and your business.
Instead, you should find ways to support working moms—both existing employees and potential new ones—to facilitate an inclusive workplace where working mothers can thrive. Below, we’ll show you exactly how to achieve just that.
7 ways to support working mothers
Regardless of whether you run a small start-up or a large business, supporting moms in the workplace doesn’t have to be difficult or costly. Here are 7 ways in which you can help the mothers in your organisation.
1: Flexibility is key
Arguably the most important measure you can take is to offer flexible working options to mothers. How to best approach this will depend on your organisation.
For example, a tech company can offer an option for remote work, but if the job is in construction it won’t be possible to offer such a policy. That’s why the level of flexibility, and how it takes shape, should be tailored to your organisation.
Furthermore, the experience of one mother won’t be identical to the experience of another. Whether she has a toddler at home or a kid who needs to be taken to swimming lessons will influence the specific needs of the employee when it comes to flexibility.
Some points to consider when creating a flexible process:
- Offer remote or hybrid work options, so the employee can work from home part or full time to be with their family
- Be open to flexible hours, so the mother can organise her working hours around her parental tasks
- Consider reduced hours or additional free days to further support a better work-life balance
2: Help close the gender pay gap
We saw earlier how mothers tend to see a decrease in earnings. Combined with the already existing gender pay gap, this results in an even wider divide in gender pay.
The result is not only that women are insufficiently rewarded and treated unfairly, but it also increases the chances that the woman will be the designated caretaker in the household.
After all, if the father earns significantly more than the mother, it makes sense that the mother quits their job rather than the father, right?
3: Help pay for childcare costs
Speaking of pay. To further assist working mothers, you can consider providing additional financial support to help cover childcare costs.
Note that we don’t advise you to simply give the parent more pay. This might result in childless employees accusing you of favouritism or unequal policies—why should they be rewarded for deciding to have children?
Instead, consider implementing support schemes as part of your employee benefits, alongside other benefits for childless employees.
4: Equal the parental gap
We discussed closing the gender pay gap, but that’s not the only inequality in gender norms when it comes to parents in the workplace.
Unfortunately, too often traditional gender norms are still prevalent: The mother is the primary caregiver and the father’s primary focus remains work. This is reinforced not only by unequal pay but also by unequal policies.
One often overseen policy, in this case, is that fathers are often given much shorter parental leave than mothers. The result is that mothers automatically stay at home longer than fathers, which in turn makes it much more likely that they will stay in that pre-assigned role of being the main caregiver.
By offering equal parental leave to both parents, the concept that women should be the main caregivers is less enforced.
5: Create a child-friendly office
In most cases, parents will bring their children to daycare or school, or work from home to take care of the kids from there. But sometimes, this might not be possible.
For those cases, a great way to support working mothers is to open up your office to children. If you run a small business, this can simply be the option for mothers to sometimes bring their kids to work for the day or afternoon.
If you have a larger office, you can consider building a dedicated nap or playroom. We’ve even heard of companies that had a complete daycare in their building!
6: Be supportive
It may sound obvious, but one of the best things you can do as an employer to support working moms is to be supportive. Be mindful of the additional stress working mothers face due to their dual jobs.
This can take many forms. For example, you can have more regular check-ins to see how their mental health is doing and whether they are not overworking. Reach out and talk to them to see how you can provide the support in the workplace mothers might need.
Furthermore, be mindful of potential fluctuations in work performance, especially when it’s a first-time mum with a young child. If you keep giving the same workload and demand the same output, there’s a good chance you are actively driving the mother towards burnout.
Instead, lower the workload and consider bringing in a temporary worker to help ease the pressure on (new) mums.
7: Don’t judge and be open to change
Lastly, never judge and keep an open mind. This should always be the case, but it might hold true even more for working mums.
Of course—and this should go without saying—this applies to being open and non-judgmental when it comes to creating pro-breastfeeding policies, allowing women to breastfeed or pump in the office.
But it’s not just that. If a mother comes into work with bags underneath her eyes and a stain on her shirt, don’t judge her for not looking presentable at the office. She might have been kept awake all night by a crying baby to have her toddler spill food on her on the way to daycare this morning.
The point is, you never really know what a mother might be going through. So don’t judge and instead rather check in to see if they are doing OK and if they might need some support.
Do you want to learn more about how to help employees in general deal with burnout, pressure, and stress? Then check out our article on how to reduce your employees’ workplace stress.