Viewpoint: The Workplace Is Evolving for Working Mothers

By Pamela Cohen, Ph.D. September 27, 2023
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​Recent legislation and a rise in women entering the workforce have changed the landscape for working mothers.

Earlier this year, the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers (PUMP) Act took effect, mandating that employers provide dedicated break times for nursing mothers to express breast milk, as well as a private place to pump that is not a bathroom.

In addition, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) went into effect on June 27, requiring covered employers to provide accommodations for limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission proposed regulations in August to implement the PWFA.

Both laws ensure mothers in the workplace have freedom—the freedom to continue working during pregnancy and to nurse their baby if they choose. The legislation represents crucial progress, but workplaces can still do more to support the needs of working mothers.

The Current State of Women in the Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the workforce for women. In 2020, 2.3 million women left the U.S. workforce—either through job loss or being forced to quit to care for their children—leading to the lowest levels of women in the labor force since the 1980s.

Following this exodus came what was dubbed the Great Resignation, a movement that continued through 2022. According to Deloitte's Women @ Work 2023 report, burnout, noninclusive workplaces and challenges with hybrid work environments were often-cited reasons for women leaving their jobs.

Women are now returning to the workforce in record numbers, with 77.8 percent of women ages 25 to 54 working or looking for jobs. Many mothers of small children are landing jobs at record rates. Women are talented, driven and know what they want out of work. Their top priorities when looking for a job include:

  • Flexibility.
  • Child care and parental-leave benefits.
  • An inclusive environment.

The demand for remote and hybrid work is higher than ever before. When the pandemic forced offices to close, many employees got to work from home for the first time, opening their eyes to the enhanced work/life integration remote work offers. And with 86 percent of women becoming mothers by the age of 44, employers will need to be ready to embrace a work culture that celebrates balance.

Why Companies Should Step Up

While the future of work is evolving, there are a few ways companies can immediately help mothers in the workforce—and it begins with flexibility.

Werklabs research has shown that flexibility contributes to business success, resulting in workers who are happier and more productive. As one mother noted within the research, "My boss is completely flexible and truly cares about my well-being, encouraging me to step away from work whenever needed. As a result, I'm more productive than I have ever been in any other position in 17 years of workforce experience."

Workplace flexibility can lead to a rise in engagement and productivity, less stress among employees and even enhanced diversity—as reports show many people of color prefer remote-work options due to instances of racism in an office environment.

The benefits of flexibility for companies go beyond increased productivity. Child care remains one of the biggest challenges for parents who work outside the home, and the repercussions of this can be seen in the workforce, with 62 percent of companies citing child care as a reason they're seeing employees leave. With the cost of replacing workers averaging 33 percent of their total compensation, the financial implications are clear.

Listening to and understanding employees' needs for flexibility can have lasting impacts, not only on businesses but on the economy as a whole.

Flexibility can include remote work as well as:

  • Flexible hours.
  • Generous parental-leave programs.
  • Condensed workweeks.

Employee resource group (ERGs) for parents can help them feel less alone and offer valuable space to share ideas about parenting. ERGs are a great way for employees to interact with co-workers who are in similar situations. In a recent Werklabs survey, nearly two-thirds of employees indicated that ERGs strongly contribute to creating an inclusive culture.

While it's important to improve the workforce experience for parents currently on the job, employers would benefit from considering those who have taken a career pause. Women who leave the workforce after having children often feel insecure about their skills after time away.

Employers that provide an on-ramp to returning to the paid workforce through returnships, or return-to-work programs, can make a lasting difference. A returnship program provides specific elements of reintroduction to work that employees cannot replicate on their own, delivering support for highly skilled parents whose contributions can enhance business success.

The Future State of Motherhood and the Workplace

The experience of being a mom in the U.S. has shifted over the last several decades, with more women attending college, delaying motherhood and staying in the workforce after the birth of a child.

Yet will employers and legislation keep up with these changes? While the strides we've made are noteworthy, in many ways, it feels as if the progress is not enough.

To ensure women are well represented, we need more. We need federal paid parental-leave and child care subsidies. We need workplaces that are empathetic to the needs of working parents and truly understand the perks of flexibility.

"Kids get sick, kids have needs, and mom is our first job no matter what," said Leighana Marino, mom of four and talent member of The Mom Project. "A company that supports mom is a company that appreciates what we do and what we are capable of, and I respect that."

We aren't quite where we need to be yet, but we can get there if we work together and share this common and expanded vision of how the landscape can be improved.

Pamela Cohen is the chief research and analytics officer at The Mom Project in Chicago.


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