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What Working Mothers Really Need from Employers

working mother holding her infant

International Women’s Day is intended to celebrate the accomplishments and progress toward gender equity, including in the workplace.

One group that has made strides is working mothers, with recent reports showing that parents of young children are employed at record numbers. However, they continue to grapple with challenges that limit their ability to grow professionally while caring for their children.

Gerald Johnson

Sarah Wells

Sarah Wells, an entrepreneur and author of Go Ask Your Mothers: One Simple Step for Managers to Support Working Moms for Team Success (Matt Holt Books, 2024), spoke with SHRM Online about what mothers in the workforce today really want—and need—from their leadership to thrive.

SHRM Online: Can you discuss the state of working mothers in the workplace today? Are they thriving at work? Or are there challenges that are holding them back?

Wells: It’s clear that some moms are thriving, and many are not. Working moms thrive when organizations provide support that meets their needs.

I talk to moms every year who are going back to work after having a baby. They want to be heard and seen by their employers. They want management to initiate communication about this transitional period of new parenthood—which lasts more than weeks or months. It could last years.

These moms want to be included in decision-making about parental benefits and policies. And they want to know that our teams are a safe place for conversations about struggle and support. It’s a critically important topic to understand as a leader in every organization: Moms want their bosses to know that they are indeed changed people upon returning to work, but they want understanding that change makes them better.

I believe when organizations harness the unique talents, skills and traits that working moms bring to the table, the moms excel in their roles and deliver strong performance for teams. And this improved performance means greater profitability and positive outcomes for your organization.

There are a lot of challenges that hold moms back from thriving—or even simply staying on teams. Some of the challenges are societal issues such as access to and affordability of child care as well as cultural attitudes and pressure toward working motherhood. Generation Z, coming to the workforce as new parents, are found to be some of the most intensely pressured to do “all the things right” as mothers.

Other challenges faced by working mothers are largely within our control as organizations. In one survey I conducted, more than 50 percent of working moms were thinking about leaving their job because of lack of support, and nearly 10 percent had already moved on from one employer to another since coming back to work after the birth or adoption of a baby.

When I dug in further, it all came down to communication. Of the moms I researched, 68 percent said their employers do not communicate enough with employees about support, and half of these moms are considering leaving their job. This doesn’t require moving mountains—you’d be amazed at how far a simple “I understand what you’re going through and appreciate everything you’re doing for the organization” can go to improving working-mom morale.

SHRM Online: Recent reports show that more mothers are working than ever before. On the surface level, this seems to be a positive development. Does this show that workplaces are catering more to the needs of working mothers?

Wells: After the mass exodus of working mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic—many of whom had to manage virtual school, lack of child care and other demands at home—the pendulum has dramatically swung in the other direction, with moms back at work in bigger numbers than ever. But why did they come back?

Of course, there are practical reasons for moms returning:

  • Kids and cost of living are expensive.
  • Moms may need to be the breadwinners in their families.
  • Many women have successful careers they wish to continue to pursue and higher education degrees they want to utilize.

But the working moms have come back faster than the experts anticipated. I do think this is largely attributable to the changes in workplace culture during the pandemic to have a greater focus on employee well-being and mental health support, as well as all sorts of unique work spaces and schedules. There is a lot to be celebrated about the growing population of working moms because I believe they are some of your best recruits and most talented employees to retain.

For this next post-pandemic chapter, the key is for organizations to keep the moms. They will leave organizations that don’t continue to offer support, which is concerning for HR professionals and all levels of leadership that hope to retain these moms.

SHRM Online: Child care costs are rising at an unprecedented rate. How can this affect both working mothers and their employers?

Wells: It’s a crisis. The cost of child care—and the total lack of child care or available open spots called “child care deserts” in many areas—is shocking. I think working moms are exhausted by this issue. Being a mom is a job in itself, and staying home is superhero status. But many moms want and need to work.

One mom I spoke with [in February] said to me:

“Child care costs mean constantly evaluating whether or not you’re making enough money to keep working. It means passing up career opportunities because the initial pay wouldn’t be high enough. It means stopping family growth at two kids—not because your family feels complete, but because you can’t afford to pay for three kids in child care. For many of my friends, it means paying their entire income on child care because if they quit their job they would never get back to where they are in their career. It’s restrictive, it’s limiting, it influences absolutely everything.”

There are opportunities for employers to contribute to the solution:

  • Offer flexible scheduling.
  • Provide work-from-home options so moms can forgo expensive before- and after-care programs.
  • Assess the costs of child care in your area.
  • Join the advocacy conversation about increasing the cap on the dependent care savings program—most of the moms report to me that they can save about 2-4 months’ worth of child care in their FSA.

SHRM Online: How can HR professionals better support the careers of working mothers?

Wells: Lack of support in the workplace holds moms back and leads to turnover and higher health care costs. There are overarching topics that most or even all working moms care about: parental leave, health care benefits and child care. But a lot of what I call “support” reveals itself in the direct conversations that management and moms must have together. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda, a nurse in a critical care unit in a large hospital system. She shared with me that while her employer met all its legal obligations, [the accommodation] offered wasn’t practical. The lactation room, located on the hospital’s bottom floor, is a ten-minute walk away from her station, where she monitors seriously ill patients. Amanda said, “Even if I could make it there, pump and get back by some miracle of time, I don’t want to be that far from my patients.”

Her employer offered no flexibility to change the situation and, as a result, she didn’t utilize the lactation room and struggled to manage her pumping sessions. One would imagine the mental and physical demands of the front-line work during the pandemic might have tipped her to waver on staying in this job, but it was actually the lack of support for her breastfeeding needs that determined the final outcome for Amanda.

Even when those of us in leadership and management have the best intentions, when we don’t engage with working moms for their feedback or, better yet, include them in the design of parent-focused initiatives, we often miss the mark in our management practices or organizational policies. It all comes back to communication.


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