Corporate America’s next big social impact project: Easing the plight of working parents

We owe them that much.
We owe them that much.
Image: REUTERS/Jilian Mincer
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Over the past year, many women who faced the dilemma of full-time caregiving or full-time work had to step away from their jobs. Other working parents were forced to muddle through, caught between competing priorities, worrying that neither their children nor their careers were getting sufficient attention. And of those workers who were laid off, women made up the majority, making them disproportionately represented among the pandemic’s most affected.

The statistics are devastating. Since the pandemic began, American women have lost 5.1 million jobs, and nearly 2.3 million have left the US labor force entirely.

While it took Covid-19 to push many women out of the workforce, what made their place precarious to begin with was a structural connection between the pressures they face at work and the unequal distribution of labor at home. There is no stimulus bill that can solve for this.

In two-gender, two-parent families, traditional gender roles cast women as the caregivers and men as the breadwinners. These unspoken assumptions and constant psychological pressures are still with us, even though they haven’t reflected the reality in most American families for decades.

The popular social meme, sometimes attributed to journalist Amy Westervelt, sums up the situation this way: “We ask women to work like they don’t have kids and parent like they don’t work.”

The way out of this conundrum is a combination of collective cultural change and the implementation by corporate America of new policies and practices.

We need attitudes and workplace policies to shift together

Women, men, and our children especially would benefit from a cultural evolution, one which sets more realistic standards. What if we built into our expectations for employees the fact that they are also parents? And what if those in partnerships raising children accepted the reality that they both have jobs? What if we built corporate policies with the assumption that there is no one-size-fits-all scenario that can address the diversity of today’s family structures? And to flip the meme on its head, what if men and women both were able to work like they were parents and parent like they were workers?

If this were to happen, we could let go of impossible standards of perfection and replace them with real strategies for progress, both at work and at home. We could build a flexible, agile, and trust-based work environment as the new norm.

What we are learning about paternity leave

It seems like a tall order, but we already are seeing opportunities for attitudes and policy to shift together. Take paternity leave. Among 41 countries, only the US lacks government-mandated paid parental leave. Currently, fewer than 1 in 5 American men are offered any paternity leave at all. Merely offering the benefit is a first step for many companies, but it would be far from the last. According to a study from the Boston College Center for Work and Family, of those men who have paternity leave, many don’t take it, or take only a small fraction of it, despite mounting research which shows that having more engaged fathers creates lasting benefits for family life, well beyond the period immediately after a child is born.

Fathers are more involved in parenting than ever before, and companies can and should encourage this positive trend. But, with such deeply embedded norms like traditional gender roles continually threatening a reversion to the mean, change in corporate culture is an imperative.

To see real change, employers need to give fathers encouragement, flexibility, and understanding, as well as role models in leadership whom they can take inspiration and a sense of permission from. By recognizing fathers as caretakers along with mothers, and encouraging managers to role model and open up about their own experiences as working parents, companies will help create better balance and equity.

Covid-19 has underscored the need

In addition to policies and benefits to support parents, companies can train managers to recognize unconscious bias, and empathize with and support working parents. When an employee feels free to bring their whole self to work, it opens the doors for conversation, accommodation, and a better employee experience. If we’re going to care for that whole person, that means acknowledging, for anyone with children, how big a part of their adult identity being a parent really is.

Those leaders hesitant to initiate change may find a sense of urgency in this fact: 85% of the workforce agrees companies need to do more to address widespread issues that have arisen because of the pandemic, including increased stress from the collision of work and life in the home.

Matching the plight of working parents with flexibility

Not only is change possible, but we’re already beginning to see new working models adopted in post-pandemic life. According to McKinsey, 52% of employees now prefer a hybrid working model, up from 30% before the pandemic. Among that 52%, employees with young children are the most enthusiastic about remote work models.

If the business community can rally around the concept of flexibility, it will do much to ease the plight of working parents. It will not only help the lives of millions but also begin the much-needed mending of the post-Covid social fabric. And it will be a further step toward making mental, physical, and emotional well-being top priority for the way employees are treated.

There is still hope that our year of lockdowns can result in a “great reset” of the rules between business and society. Let’s not lose the chance to give working parents, and especially moms, the reset they have so long needed, and make changes to business that will have a long-lasting impact.

We also need changes at home

Without a more equitable distribution of caregiving responsibilities at home, and company culture making room for it, there’s a danger that female participation in the workforce will suffer long after the pandemic has passed. What does this look like? It’s not just parents dropping out of the workforce altogether, but being forced to pass up opportunities for advancement, or burning the candle at both ends for many more months or even years.

All working parents will continue to face undue pressures that keep them from making their full contribution either to their families or their companies, unless we commit to real change by continuously seeking and defining new ways of working.

April Crichlow is the head of marketing for SAP SuccessFactors and a mother of two.

Rebecca Minkoff is the co-founder and creative director of her namesake fashion label, co-founder of the Female Founder Collective, author of “Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success,” and a mother of three.

Alison Koplar Wyatt is a co-founder of the Female Founder Collective, an advisor to startups and investor in female-funded businesses, and a mother of three.