It has become alarmingly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening women’s careers. In September 2020 alone, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce, compared to 216,000 men. Furthermore, one in four women are considering either leaving the workforce or reducing their work hours. A stream of advice has suggested how working mothers can work from home with kids, manage work/life boundaries (or lack thereof), and handle anxiety over school decisions. Yet when we interviewed working mothers about these challenges this summer, we learned how many have taken it upon themselves to address the challenges they’re facing, rather than their employers and managers stepping up and getting involved.
We asked the mothers we interviewed how their managers were—and weren’t—supporting them. These women were all employed, had children under the age of 16 at home, and had partners. Our conversations revealed a situation that is not sustainable and could further push women out of the workforce. As we brace for a spike in Covid-19 numbers and many areas consider lockdowns, our findings suggest three ways that managers can ensure mothers remain on the job – during the pandemic, and beyond.
Provide certainty and clarity, wherever possible.
In our interviews, we heard frequently that uncertainty about the future was adding stress and chaos to participants’ lives. General anxiety about the pandemic, worries of job insecurity (including being new to their job or seeing their industry decline), and apprehension over calls to work from home or return to the office have all caused stress. One IT analyst shared that her employer was giving only one-week guarantees that employees wouldn’t have to return physically to the office. For working parents, these windows were far too short to adequately plan for child care.
Recommendation: When possible, provide employees with certainty. Be clear about job expectations and performance standards. Communicate policy changes in a timely manner: letting employees know where they stand, informing them on what decisions are being made and why, and sharing the plan for what’s coming next. As an example, employers who have provided guarantees such as “you can continue to work remotely if you choose to do so through January 28, 2021” or “we will commit to not laying off any employees until at least December 15, 2020” can help to alleviate stress that comes from uncertainty.
Rightsize job expectations
As work and kids simultaneously stormed into the home, many were not prepared for the collapse of boundaries between the two domains. Nearly all of our participants were still recovering from the upheavals of March and April. While they wanted their lives to return to normal, childcare demands remain consuming and self-care nearly unattainable. For many of the mothers we talked to, pre-pandemic level work performance is still impossible. Still, we heard from some women that their employers were proactively responding to these constraints by calibrating expectations. One participant reported that her senior leader told employees “If you are able to operate at 50% right now, I’ll consider that a win.” A graphic designer described how her supervisor “was literally asking me permission to send me work; she was beyond understanding.” In both these cases, the women we interviewed said that this recognition made them feel as though their struggles were being seen and they expressed an unwavering commitment to their employers.
Recommendation: Implement parent-friendly scheduling policies, and ensure that everyone knows it’s okay to use them. Studies show that a compressed work week or a shorter workday can reduce burnout. To help accommodate heavily impacted employees (such as working parents), managers can update job descriptions, enact organizational development processes, or allow employees to job craft. Taking everyone’s circumstances into consideration can create developmental opportunities for employees with more bandwidth, which can foster career development. In a work-first culture, however, such policies may not be easily embraced by all managers; companies should therefore train and evaluate their leaders on how to successfully implement them, to reinforce that the organization is serious about support.
Continue the empathy
Several of our participants shared how managers were responsive and compassionate with them earlier in the pandemic, but that during the summer months, weary of remote work, “the empathy seems to have run out.” Arriving late to a Zoom call or having a kid run in the background were forgiven in April; however, multiple participants shared that the mood has since shifted. One participant described it as “It’s like people forgot that the pressures were still there. My kids are still home!” A part of empathy is understanding the challenges that working mother employees face, which not all managers are personally familiar with. This is complicated by the stigma of working mothers, which makes many reluctant to ask for help. A manager at an accounting firm described how “the weight is now put on the shoulders of employees to ask for help, when asking for help is not made easy,” as the act of asking was stigmatized as a sign of weakness or lack of commitment.
Recommendation: Managers should continue to (or begin to) proactively ask employees what they need, how they feel, and if they feel comfortable in how they work. Leaders can discuss suffering and show vulnerability, to help normalize such conversations. Workplace compassion is associated with a series of desired outcomes, including enhanced collaboration and lower turnover. A very simple approach is to start all meetings with a check-in. Just as it is recommended to start virtual meetings with a time for team members to share wins, there can also be time spent to check in on how people are doing. This generates understanding of lived experiences that may not be familiar to all on the call. Remember that life, and work, are still far from normal. Employees- particularly working mothers – need compassion, empathy, and understanding more than ever.
Your Employees Are Paying Attention
It is no longer an option for managers to pretend that their employees do not have lives outside of their jobs, as these evaporated boundaries between home and work are not going away anytime soon. And as we heard from our participants, employees are taking notes right now: they are paying attention to how their employers are handling this crisis. Our evidence supports that managers who follow these suggestions will be most likely to motivate and retain their working mother talent, an important source of human capital. A specialist in a law firm relayed how “I went to my boss and made a different schedule. Small adjustments made things so much better. My boss asked ‘Are you okay? I know this is so bad for you with the kids.’ They are such incredible people. It makes me want to work my butt off for them.” This commitment will likely persist even after the pandemic subsides. While our study focused on working mothers, creating a workplace environment that is supportive of them extends support to all employees. Organizations have the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve by providing the support that employees need. We hope employers and managers heed these calls, as the productivity, well-being, and retention of their working mother employees are on the line.
Harvard Business Review