Now, more than ever, employers have great power in retaining their working mothers and eliminating the “motherhood penalty.” A recent study by Bright Horizons, which operates over 1,000 early education centers and preschools in the U.S., found that 41 percent of employed Americans perceive working moms to be less devoted to their work. The study also found that more than one-third judge them for needing a flexible schedule. This “motherhood penalty” not only holds women back from leadership positions but also contributes to the wage gap (nearly 80% of it can be accounted for by motherhood). According to The New York Times, women get a 4% pay cut for each child they have, compared to men who get a 6% pay increase on average.
So, what’s the takeaway for employers? Maternity leave needs to be viewed in the company culture as a “brief interlude” and not a “major career disruption.” Over the next decade, 64 million millennials are expected to become parents and as the competition heats up to recruit top talent, a 2017 E&Y study revealed that 83 percent of millennials would be more likely to join a company that offered paid parental leave. Makes sense considering a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reinforced that mothers were actually more productive in their jobs than women without children.
The very first thing employers should do? Ease the transition back to the workplace. Companies can and should lessen the emotional and financial strains of new parenthood. According to a white paper by Maven, 75% of expecting mothers say they’re excited to go back to work after giving birth—that’s until reality sets in and roughly 43% do leave their jobs. While many factors play into why these women ultimately quit, most are financially unable to stay home full-time while others aren’t ready to halt their climb up the corporate ladder.
For employers, providing programs and creating policies that aid the mothers in their workforce is the key to staying competitive. Encouraging flexibility is one of the most effective ways that employers can retain talent after they take parental leave. This is especially important because the recommended amount of maternity leave is six months—which is simply not possible for most companies, especially smaller ones, to offer. Lauren Smith Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester consulting, which helps businesses retain women by supporting new motherhood and author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby, says the best way companies can compensate is with support. “At least up until that six-month mark, which is when more parents hit their stride in the workplace [post leave],” explains Brody.
And, your company develops its maternity/parental leave policies—Brody recommends taking a “blind approach.” Don’t favor the primary parent over the secondary one. She also advises that the policy takes into account every possible circumstance—from surrogacy to adoption. “They should be either detailed enough or basic enough that they accommodate every twist and turn into the drama of entering parenthood that companies can think of,” explains Brody. “This protects employees and makes them loyal—while keeping equality in the workplace.”
Unbiased support and flexibility for new parents cultivates a culture where employees won’t fear inevitably choosing between children or their career. Here, Brody has eight suggestions for companies to consider implementing to ease stress and anxiety for employees before, during and after maternity/parental leave.
1. START PLANNING COVERAGE—IMMEDIATELY
As soon as your employee reveals the happy news that they’re expecting, that’s when discussions should begin regarding maternity leave and what the coming year will look like. It sets the tone, giving employees more than enough time to lay out their plans for the coverage they envision. And, it keeps the conversation afloat so as the employer, you can check in. “By saying, ‘Hey, I want you to let me know if your physical needs change or your schedule needs change”—your employee knows you want to figure out mutually acceptable and helpful solutions,’” says Brody. It’s also helpful to allow the employee to drive the plan since they have deeper insight into the day to day logistics of what needs coverage.
2. IMPLEMENT ERGs FOR NEW PARENTS
An Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a smart way to guide new parents back to work. They’re usually formed by employees from all parts of the organization to serve as a support and peer group and often have the ear of top management to recommend changes as needed. Coming back to work after having a baby is emotional and for most, unchartered territory. The benefit of forming a specific ERG for new moms is the guidance and encouragement they receive directly from peers (on every level) who are thriving post maternity leave. ERGs can take shape in many forms depending on the size and needs of the company. “It could be via peer mentorship or hiring someone like me to give personal coaching,” says Brody. “Overall, it lets employees discuss some of the more personal problems they may not feel comfortable bringing up with their employers directly.”
3. OFFER SOLUTIONS TO RELIEVE THE COST OF CHILD CARE
“Knowing that childcare is incredibly expensive is one of the main reasons that women drop out of the workforce,” Brody explains. “Women do the math on what their salaries pay them and then after taxes, what that nets them and then what they pay for child care.” Companies, however, can protect their new moms from being penalized by coming up with a benefit specifically for parents of young babies. “Newborn care is the most expensive type of childcare,” explains Brody. “If you can keep the parents in the workforce until regular schooling kicks in—then their childcare costs will go down. It’s that immediate hit that’s just so hard to live with.”
Brody recommends that companies look into local daycare centers that offer “backup” plans and arrange for a certain number of days per year, per employee. That alleviates stress if a nanny calls out sick or an employee’s regular center is closed on a work day. Companies can offer an FSA (Flexible Spending Account) to let parents pay for their childcare in pretax dollars and bargain for a group rate at a daycare that’s central to the workplace.
4. UNDERSTAND MATERNITY LEAVE OPTIONS SPECIFIC TO YOUR STATE
Knowledge is power. When employers know the maternity leave policies and programs available within their state, they can help their employees maximize the amount of parental leave available to them. This is especially helpful when employers cannot provide the amount of paid leave their employees seek and can navigate the options for them. Here’s a brief overview of maternity/parental leave in the tri-state area:
New York: Women are entitled to have some of their salary or wages “replaced” by the state through New York Paid Family Leave (NYPFL). As of 2019, most new parents who work for private employers are eligible for up to ten weeks of partially paid maternity leave a year (and that will eventually up to 12 weeks in 2021). If a woman’s employer DOES offer its own paid leave, the NYPFL is still available because employers cannot interfere with an employee’s right to take NYPFL. And, this plan is all about flexibility—with options to take the maternity leave in full-day increments as needed.
New Jersey: The state pays workers for maternity or parental leave with the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA) and Family Leave Insurance (FLI). These two state plans work together—NJFLA provides job protection and FLI provides payment during leave. FLI allows up to six weeks of partially paid maternity leave to bond with a newborn baby (or adopted child) every year—so long at least $168 a week was earned for the previous 20 weeks or $8,400 was made during the preceding year. Partially paid leave through New Jersey’s Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) program provides up to four weeks of paid leave before child birth and an additional six weeks of coverage afterwards (or eight weeks in the case of a C-section delivery). TDI is available over a longer period if there’s any pregnancy or postpartum complications.
Connecticut: Unfortunately, Connecticut has no state or federal law requirements ensuring that women receive any paid time off for maternity leave. Now, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) under federal law requires employers to provide eligible employees with 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave in the year after the birth or adoption of a child. And, the Connecticut Family Medical Leave Act (CT FMLA) may apply to employers that work, not live, in Connecticut. CT FMLA offers 16 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave within a 24-month period after the birth or adoption of a child. However, it only applies to employers with at least 75 employees and excludes any state or local government employees.
5. CREATE A CULTURE OF FLEXIBILITY
It’s possible to turn the “motherhood penalty” into a “motherhood advantage.” Many new moms are unintentionally written out of work that would otherwise keep them moving up. Many employers believe they’re accommodating new parents by encouraging them to skip a business trip, miss meetings or take themselves out of the running for a promotion. The reality? Managers should never assume they know what a working parent does or does not want. “Assume that they’re ‘in,’” says Brody. “Then be really, really open when they negotiate for flexibility. They’re probably not any less ambitious or any less inclined to move up and make more money. Parents are actually quite motivated by money.” Which is why the main thing new parents need and want is flexibility. “Fostering a culture that allows employees to negotiate for flexibility actually makes for more productive, more profitable, more inspired, more loyal—more everything—workers,” says Brody.
6. MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
Flexibility shows up differently as everyone’s situation is unique. But universally, it’s the little things that will go a long way. For example, shifting a new parent’s start time so they can leave early to beat traffic—or otherwise get charged for every minute they’re late to daycare pickup. “You better believe it’s distracting if you schedule an end of day meeting and a parent is worried about leaving on time,” explains Brody. “By accommodating these things, employers are taking back the good time you do have of that employee in the office.” And, if employers expect employees to be accessible at 10pm for a phone call or email, you must allow them that gap before the kids go to bed. “I would love to be able to tell every mom I work with to turn everything off at 5pm, but that’s just not the reality of the way we work,” says Brody. With that said, it’s important for those with executive authority to model appropriate boundaries. “Sure, many of us have biorhythms that make us more productive late at night and send a ton of emails to get a jump on the next day,” says Brody. “Write them all—but don’t hit send. Put them in your draft folder until the morning. Don’t send the message to your employee that you expect them to do the same—because they’ll feel that they must engage and reply to keep up. That breeds resentment and you’ll lose that employee.”
7. REMOVE THE BREASTFEEDING STIGMA
It’s required by law to have a private space—that’s not a bathroom—where new moms can pump. Employers are required to allow them the time in their day to do so (though different states do have different statutes so make sure your breastfeeding accommodations are compliant with your state’s law). No matter what, the pumping space created for new moms must be practical and accommodating. For example, if your office has three new moms—they’ll likely all need to pump at the same time, likely three times throughout the day. And unfortunately, no, they can’t just take turns. The solution? Create a functional space for the maximum possible number of moms you may have pumping. And, make it a space where they can all work and pump simultaneously. “That destigmatizes the time, so it’s no longer seen as a ‘break,’” explains Brody. “The women should be able to come out of the pumping room holding their milk to put in the fridge and be like, ‘You won’t believe ALL the things that I just got done!’” Pumping, with the right conditions, can and should be a very productive time.
8. LEAVE YOUR POLICY OPEN FOR ALL TYPES OF CARE
Everything ties back to creating “blind” policies—and Brody reiterates this is not just for moms and dads, dads and dads, moms and moms, surrogates or adoption. “A company’s leave policy should cover anybody who has to care for a sick partner or spouse or anybody who has to care for an elderly parent,” says Brody. “At some point in our lives, perhaps more than once, we will all have a family member who needs our everything in that moment.” Creating policies that are open to as many types of accommodations as possible sets up a culture where employees not only feel comfortable using them but also feel empowered to be open about why they’re out of the office.