The “Return-to-Workplace” Policies That Will Bring Moms Back

Women were treading water before the pandemic. Now as more companies return to the workplace, employers must examine how we support women in the workplace, especially mothers, and make bold changes so they don’t sink under the heavy responsibilities of work and caregiving. It’s time to help them swim—providing them the long overdue support they need to thrive.

One-third of working women have children and since COVID-19 first showed up in the US, over two million women have left—or have been forced to leave—their jobs, spiraling female workforce participation down to its lowest point in 30 years. Another one in four women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

It’s clear that the pandemic didn’t undermine a functioning system. Rather, it exposed what women have known for decades: work doesn’t work for moms, and work-life balance is an illusion. Too many employers continue to fail to provide the basic policies and practices moms need to thrive—at work and at home.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we cannot afford to maintain a broken status quo.  In partnership with the Marshall Plan for Moms, APCO Impact launched a playbook titled “Making Workplaces Work for Moms: Building a Mom-Friendly Workplace for the Post-Pandemic Future” to identify the solutions that will not only help keep women in the workforce, but help bring them back.  These are not revolutionary solutions — however, implementing them will have a revolutionary impact on the future of our workforce. Below are ten imperatives for employers — these cannot be implemented piecemeal. Real change comes from addressing these solutions as a comprehensive suite of changes that are foundational to creating a healthy workforce for caregivers.

  1. Provide maximum control over scheduling. Giving working moms control over their schedule improves productivity and engagement. For salaried workers, this means giving mothers flexibility over what hours and days they work instead of a standard 40-hour work week. For hourly workers, this means providing employees with predictability and advance notice over their schedules.
  2. Support with childcare. Employers need to recognize the accessibility issues surrounding high-quality, affordable childcare. Making childcare more accessible can happen in a variety of ways: providing on-site care, subsidizing care options, negotiating discounts on behalf of employees at local centers or offering flexible spending accounts with pre-tax dollars. Every little bit counts.
  3. Foster positive gender dynamics at home by supporting and encouraging paternity leave. Employers should encourage men, especially those in leadership positions, to take a full paternity leave. This helps create balance in the caregiving responsibilities at home from the start of a child’s life and counteracts the strain of unpaid labor at home that falls disproportionately on women today.
  4. Prioritize moms’ mental health. Employers must change their leave policies to support moms’ health. Companies should offer options for paid time off with clear guidelines and encourage employees to utilize it. In particular, leaders should embody healthy behaviors and create a culture emphasizes the importance of prioritizing mental health.
  5. Close the gender pay gap. Employers must pay all employees equally and a living wage for their region. Additionally, companies should create pipelines for high-paying and leadership positions and evaluate their hiring, recruitment and promotion processes and ensure they are fair.
  6. Root out the motherhood penalty. Employers can reduce and eliminate discrimination in the workplace by requiring unconscious bias training and implementing leadership development programs that target moms.
  7. Don’t rush moms back to work before they’re ready. Employees will be less likely to leave a company after having kids if they are provided with a fair maternity leave that allows them to recover and bond with their children.
  8. Provide better on-ramps to bring moms back to work. Moms are more likely to come back when they are welcomed back and given a supported, individualized pathway to do so. Offering accommodations and support during the transition back to work will benefit both moms and the company. “Returnship” programs designed to support moms’ needs can improve retention rates and create happier employees.
  9. Guarantee paid sick leave. Sick leave not only benefits moms and the people in their care, but promotes responsible work practices by preventing the spread of germs.
  10. Advocate for moms publicly. Companies are expected to use their influence to lobby for policies that are important to their employees. Not only is it the right thing to do, but championing polices that benefit working moms will benefit everyone in the long run. The recently proposed American Families Plan contains many of the provisions moms have been asking for years from affordable childcare to a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program.

These are not new, radical ideas. Yet many employers in the United States continue to fail to provide even the most basic support system. And where these policies and practices do exist, corporate cultures often inhibit women from actually using them, or outright penalize them when they do. For example, while 71% of moms we surveyed described being a working mom during the pandemic as “very challenging,” few feel they can take time off to prioritize their mental health and well-being. These dangerous trends underscore why moms are leaving the workforce in droves.

Numerous countries already have these practices in place—in New Zealand, all employees have the statutory right to request a variation to their hours of work, days of work or place of work. A request can be made at any time, for any purpose or reason and there are no limits on how many requests can be made in any period. American public policy most certainly needs to catch up to the rest of the industrialized world, but in parallel, companies must enact internal policies and practices that benefit mothers—while flexing their influence to push for long overdue policy changes as well.

For years, women have called for a common set of solutions that would help alleviate the strain of juggling their numerous priorities. Now is the time to heed that call before we risk losing a huge swath of our talent and a deeper, lasting mental health strain on the bedrocks of our society.

The bottom line is this: making the workplace better for moms makes it better for all workers.