10.6 million more women would be in the labor force today if they participated in the labor force at the same rate as men. Across all U.S. industries and locations, employers are finding it harder and harder to fill open jobs with qualified employees. According to BLS.gov, there are 9.6 million job openings in the U.S., yet less than six million unemployed workers are available for hire. With the labor force participation rate for working moms at one of the lowest rates since the 1970s, it is apparent that women are still missing from the workplace compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Employers have the opportunity to close the gap and overcome this workforce issue. How?
By strengthening the employment relationship with working mothers.
Relationships matter. Relationships connect us to each other and the world around us. When we feel secure in our relationships, we thrive — we are confident and committed. During and after the pandemic, women’s relationships were stripped of that security at home and at work. More women than men worked in the industries most impacted by layoffs and burnout, including the education, retail, hospitality, and health care industries. On the homefront, responsibilities for childcare and education fell to women as childcare centers closed and schools went virtual. Even as other industries have started to bounce back, jobs in the childcare industry are still 5.1% below what it was in February 2020.
As a result, many women were forced to leave the workforce due to childcare challenges and cannot return to the workplace because of childcare challenges. In fact, half of all workers and nearly 60% of parents cite lack of childcare as their reason for leaving the workforce. As a working mother of two small children, I can personally attest how childcare challenges have impacted my ability to work and my relationship with work.
So what can employers do to support working mothers and encourage their return to the workforce despite a broken U.S. childcare system? If employers continue to look at employment only as the give and take of pay and benefits in return for work, we will continue to face a shortage of working mothers in the workforce. Employers must build a relationship with women candidates and employees that’s rooted in trust, respect, value, and care.
Build trust in the organization.
Working mothers need both stability and flexibility to build trust in an organization as their employer. They want to trust that the organization is able to provide opportunities for them to support their family, both financially and emotionally. This means aligning with their values, rewarding performance, making business decisions that take into consideration the challenges of childcare for working parents, and communicating the reasoning behind decisions made.
Trust requires understanding. To truly build confidence and commitment to working mothers, employers need to understand what matters most to them. This means connecting with women, both candidates and current employees, to identify pain points before offering solutions. Start by conducting surveys or hosting small virtual focus groups with women to listen to their experiences. This isn’t another employee engagement survey — it goes deeper than that. This is about understanding working mothers, who they are, and what matters to them in an employer. Employers can use this research to understand the current relationship women have with their employer. Uncover women’s current level of trust in the organization and compare it to working mothers. Then track and measure their level of trust over time to see the impact policies, benefits, or organizational changes have on working mothers.
Lead by example to earn respect.
Internally and externally, leaders have an impact on how an organization is perceived. Organizations place emphasis on having women in leadership, but in reality, women hold only eight percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies in the U.S. Having a female CEO or women in leadership roles isn’t enough to bring working mothers back to the workforce — but it is a good start. To truly earn respect from working mothers, female executives and leaders at all levels need to show their whole self. Simply put, working moms want to see other working moms be successful leaders.
Respect requires authenticity. Every organization will not be able to provide or afford exceptional benefits for maternity leave or health care benefits that cover the cost dependent care. It's not about the benefits — it’s about leaders being honest and upfront about what the organization can offer and how it has prioritized its employees. The more honest and authentic an organization is, the stronger the relationship with employees. Organizations can also be authentic through employee stories. Showcase women in leadership who have families and highlight their experience, management style, and ability to stay committed to both work and children. Collect and share stories of working mothers with specific examples of how they manage work and life. Emphasize how the organization respects and values their contributions to the company. Do this year-round, not just on Mother’s Day or for Women’s History Month to truly be authentic.
Demonstrate the value working mothers bring to the company.
Women bring incredible value to organizations. They boost the bottom line, employer reputation, and make an organization a better place to work. One research study found that having more women in the workplace positively influenced employee engagement and retention. It could then be assumed the opposite is true — less women means a less positive work environment.
Returning to the workforce from short-term leave or unemployment isn’t an easy transition for anyone, but it can be especially hard on women. Add in the external factors of a pandemic-induced childcare crisis and working mothers face a very challenging return to work. And probably an even stronger dose of imposter syndrome than average.
Employers can help women overcome these challenges by ensuring working mothers have the opportunity to provide valuable contributions to the team. Share and celebrate their successes. Make working mothers feel truly valued by making them feel supported. One way employers can do this is by building collaborative and diverse teams. When coworkers are in different seasons of their lives, they can more easily flex in different ways to support each other.
Care about what’s accomplished, not when or where.
In our research at exaqueo, flexibility is often cited as a top attractor to join and top reason to stay at an employer. More specifically, Gen Z values flexibility in order to grow and support a family — one in three cite family-friendly policies as very important when researching jobs and employers (2021 Gen Z Early Career Employment Study). From my own personal experience, flexibility is one of the top reasons I stay committed to exaqueo.
For many, the pandemic changed the way people worked and where they worked. Working from home was no longer for the select few or privileged. The relationship with work shifted and employers cared more about work getting done and less about when or where. This kind of flexibility needs to remain in place for working mothers to want to return to the workforce.
Women take on the brunt of childcare responsibilities — daycare pick-ups and drop-offs, sick days, shuttling to activities. According to BLS.gov, women spend 1.8 hours more than men providing secondary childcare for children under age 6 and 2.4 hours more for children ages 6 to 12. When employers place emphasis on work location and working hours over results or impact, they create an environment where mothers are perceived as caring less about their work. Yes, there will be some women who want to work in an office and have the separation from home and work. For others, the only way to balance is to integrate work and family by working from home. Regardless of the model, working mothers need flexibility.
Employers can attract and retain working mothers by offering hybrid work arrangements or flexible work schedules. Establish a work culture that’s rooted in care for the work and encourages employees to get work done when and where it works best for them.
Strengthening women’s confidence to want to return to the workforce will require a true commitment from employers. Offering transactional benefits like flexible spending accounts for dependent care or even on-site childcare may attract working mothers to your organization, but they won’t move the needle in terms of commitment. Employers need to truly understand what working mothers want and need in an employment opportunity — beyond pay and benefits. Ensure working mothers can work by making them feel supported in their employment relationship.