SumTotal Blog

Pulse Check: Mothers in the Workplace Post-Pandemic

September 22, 2022 | by SumTotal Blog | 6 min read

Who comes to mind when you picture a working mother? Someone rocking enormous “Working Girl”-era shoulder pads while making school lunches for the day? Maybe you picture a celebrity? Or perhaps someone far more down to earth — a friend, a partner, a co-worker, or even yourself?

While everyone experienced a roller coaster of anxieties over the past few years, working mothers had some unique stresses resting on their heavily padded shoulders. In fact, so many women left the workforce that the phenomenon was given a name: the “she-cession.”

We wanted to assess where working, American mothers stand in late 2022 and explore how businesses can support women currently in — and returning to — the workforce.

Where Women Stand

The Good News:

  • Women are back at work: As of May 2022, employment levels of women with children under the age of 13 are up to 2% below pre-pandemic levels. Unemployment levels of fathers with children in the same age group have fully recovered.
  • Female entrepreneurship has increased: According to research from Gusto, nearly 40% of women who started new businesses during COVID did so because of financial imperative. It’s been theorized that this surge in entrepreneurship is being driven by Black women who are pivoting to their own ventures as a way to avoid to being passed over due to racial and gender bias in a corporate environment.
  • Women are leveraging the “Great Resignation”: Some women who never left the workforce have been able to leverage The Great Resignation to move into positions that better suit their needs — whether those needs entail better pay, more responsibility, or increased flexibility.

What Still Needs Work:

  • Vulnerable populations are still being left behind: According to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, women without college degrees left their jobs at twice the rate of women with degrees during the first 18 months of the pandemic, primarily because women with degrees were more likely to have the option to work from home (and, therefore, were better equipped to juggle work and childcare). For Black women both with and without a degree, employment has not recovered at the same pace as other groups due to several factors: Black women are more likely to work taxing frontline jobs, shoulder more child-care responsibilities, and face more hiring discrimination than their white counterparts.
  • Lack of equal pay: From a global perspective, women saw great losses in the quest for gender parity over the past few years. According to trends leading up to 2020, the gender gap was set to close within 100 years. In 2021, this estimate rose to 136 years before decreasing slightly to 132 years in 2022. On average, American women make 83 cents to every man’s dollar, which amounts to a loss of $417,400 over a 40-year career of full-time, year-round work.
  • Invisible labor: Globally, women do 55% of unpaid “invisible” labor such as housework or childcare, while men do 19%. In the U.S., women do an average of 4 hours of unpaid labor per day, while men do 2.5 hours — and women who make more than their husbands take on an even larger share of the housework.
  • The motherhood penalty: When women have children, their earning potential often decreases due to a phenomenon known as the motherhood penalty that occurs when women take leaves of absence from their careers to care for their children. On the other hand, men enjoy a bump in earnings known as the “fatherhood bonus” when they have children.

How Businesses Can Help

While many issues facing working mothers require breaking and reforging deeply rooted systemic issues, companies can take the following steps to make a positive impact and see increased retention, bolstered company loyalty, and decreased burnout as a result.

1. Don’t just offer flexibility, live it: Although hybrid or remote work is now the norm for a rising number of jobs, women who take advantage of such flexibility may be stigmatized if managers fall prey to an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. To destigmatize remote work, a culture of flexibility needs to start at the top so employees can see executives following their own advice.

2. Provide family-friendly benefits: While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year, the U.S. does not have national standards on paid family leave. In a report on working parents by Ovia Health, 4 in 10 respondents felt their employer was not family-friendly, while 90% said they would likely leave their current position for the same job with better family benefits. The main takeaway? Robust parental benefits are key to maintain and cultivate your workforce.

3. Re-evaluate promotions: According to Camille A. Olson, a partner at law firm Seyfarth Shaw, some companies limit raises for internal promotions at 10%. This can disproportionately impact women, who tend to stay at companies longer than men and therefore less frequently experience the pay bump often associated with moving to a new organization.

4. Invest in learning and development: Creating a culture of learning in the workplace not only gives female employees the tools to achieve their career goals but also makes women more likely to pursue new skills and competencies. For learning and development (L&D) initiatives to succeed, managers need to become true career coaches who ask, “What are your goals, and what are the steps we can take to get there?” In turn, employers need to allocate time in the workday for such coaching opportunities so L&D doesn’t become a “homework assignment.”

5. Emphasize employee wellness: In the U.S. and Canada, 62% of working women reported experiencing stress “a lot of the day” in 2021 — 10 points higher than working men. Stress can lead to burnout, which can in turn lead to productivity loss, with Gallup determining that employees who are disengaged can cost companies 18% of their annual salary. In short, emphasizing employee wellness only wards off burnout-induced productivity loss but increases employee retention.

6. Offer returnships: Returnships are training programs or internships offered to people — usually mothers — who are not new to the workforce but may need to brush up on technical skills as they prepare to return to work after a significant period away. Through returnship programs, companies like T-Mobile and Goldman Sachs have accessed talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

The past few years have illuminated the unsustainability of many long-held assumptions surrounding labor, compensation, and childcare. Like members of any group, working mothers need the proper tools and resources do their best work. So, let’s lighten the load — those shoulder pads are heavy enough!

"Want to learn more about helping employees under stress? Check out our webinar Supporting Your Employees to Prevent Workplace Burnout."

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