Promoting Gender Equity in the Workplace Means Supporting New Moms

Despite advances in creating equitable environments for all workers, new mothers continue to face roadblocks when it comes to balancing family and workplace responsibilities. Returning to work after a baby is always challenging, no matter a woman’s job description and family circumstances. They’re facing financial pressure, time constraints and still processing the biggest transition of their lives – becoming a new parent. But are employers doing enough to ensure that having a baby doesn’t force parents to choose between their job and the welfare of their family?

Professional Women

For employers seeking to promote gender equity, especially for women of color, family-focused policies are critical to support pregnant and postpartum employees. Benefits like paid leave, flex time and lactation policies help women stay in the labor force, reduce turnover and increase the number of women advancing to leadership roles.

Removing Barriers to Retain Female Talent

Post pandemic, an estimated one million women are still missing from the labor force. The labor force participation rate for all mothers with children under age 18 was 71.2% in 2021, which is down from 72.3% in 2019. The participation rate for fathers was 92.5% in 2021. Working women participate in the labor force at a lower rate than men and that number declines further for women with young children. For mothers whose youngest child was under age 6, the participation rate drops to 65.8%.¹

No doubt women with infants face an uphill battle returning to work. Supportive policies for parental leave and postpartum considerations like a designated time and place to pump breast milk go a long way in easing transitions. The notion of ‘invisible labor’ – caregiving duties outside of work – seems to fall more to mothers than fathers, combined with the physical demands of pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding.  In households with working parents and children under age 6, women spent 1.8 hours more than men on childcare-related duties on an average day (6.6 hours for women and 4.8 hours for men).²

Burnout is a big factor for parents with young children. Not surprisingly, women are five to eight times more likely to experience a caregiving impact on their employment.³ In 2021, one in three women considered leaving or changing jobs due to burnout.⁴ When it comes to women leaders, they’re switching employers at a higher rate than ever. A recent McKinsey report with more than 40,000 respondents indicates that women leaders are 1.5 times more likely than men to leave their jobs because they’re seeking employers who prioritize flexibility, well-being and DEI initiatives. The study also shows that the younger generation of women are even more likely to prioritize these issues when choosing an employer.⁵

Gender Equity Challenges:  Socioeconomic Gaps Impacting Working Mothers

When pursuing gender equity policies, employers also need to consider all the socioeconomic factors at play. Hourly, low-wage and part-time workers are typically the ones feeling the most pressure during a challenging life transition like having a baby, and they frequently have little to no control over workplace policies impacting their ability to care for themselves and their families. More than 26% of all working moms are part-time employees.⁶ Women, particularly women of color, are overrepresented in low-wage, hourly, and part-time jobs, and they are more likely than those in higher-paying jobs to be the primary breadwinners for their families.⁷

Health inequities compound the situation, making it even more important to meet the needs of new mothers. According to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance program, low-income recipients are already at a disadvantage in having choices around breastfeeding. Nationwide, 66% of infants on WIC are fully formula-fed and only 12% are fully breastfed.⁸

Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from a maternal-related issue than white women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women, whereas the mortality rate was 19.1 deaths per 100,000 births for white women.⁹ The disparity is present even among higher income Black women. A recent study of 2 million births in California found that the highest income Black mothers and their babies are twice as likely to die as the highest income white mothers and their babies. Further highlighting the divide, maternal mortality rates were just as high among the highest income Black women as the lowest income white women.¹⁰

An Answer to Gender Equity in the Workplace: Cultures that Celebrate Families

Women are paying attention to culture and noticing if an employer has a system in place that actively acknowledges the significant milestone of new parenthood. Amid a culture of support from managers and peers who celebrate their growing family, working women are more inclined to stay with that employer long term instead of hunting for a more family inclusive workplace culture.

Employers are responding by rapidly expanding benefits that focus on the special needs of women and reproductive health, from the preconception phase to menopause. For employers with 5,000 or more employees, 48% are now offering one or more specialized reproductive benefits. Among family building benefits, lactation garnered the most interest, with 77% of employers planning to offer or already offering the benefit, followed secondly by adoption assistance at 38%.¹¹

Other good news from a recent survey of 700 organizations is that 70% of employers offer or plan to offer paid parental leave and 12% are embracing a newer trend called phase-back-to-work benefits, which can have a profound effect on employee morale. In terms of childcare, nearly one in 10 large employers indicate they provide access to back-up childcare.¹²

Meeting Gender Equity Goals with Fair Access to Family-Friendly Benefits

Policies that unequivocally support families are the way forward to promoting equity for working mothers and helping to meet overall DEI goals. But family-friendly policies may fall short if they’re not communicated and administered evenly to all workers within an organization.

In the case of lactation benefits, consider if those benefits are reaching workers beyond your corporate headquarters and are also available at satellite, branch or warehouse locations. A warehouse employee has the same rights to support as an employee in the main office, even if it means extra measures are required to meet that need. Finding the time and space to express milk is especially challenging for essential or mobile workers like teachers, nurses, agriculture workers, maintenance crews, and pilots and flight attendants. For these working moms, employers can get creative by providing wearable, hands-free personal use pumps and helping to find coverage for their pumping breaks.

Businesses can make significant progress toward gender equity by promoting policies that help new parents maintain their health, take care of their families and achieve economic stability — which is particularly critical for those in low-wage, hourly or part-time jobs. With policies that recognize the burdens and barriers for new mothers, employers will reap the benefits of boosted morale and a more stable workforce.

¹The Economics Daily, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2022.

²American Time Use Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2022.

³Flood et al, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey, University of Minnesota, 2021.

⁴A Decline of Women in the Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, April 2022

⁵Women in the Workplace study of 40,000 respondents, McKinsey, 2022.

⁶Ibid 1.

⁷Tucker et al, When Hard Work is Not Enough: Women in Low-Paid Jobs, National Women’s Law Center, 2020.

⁸WIC Breastfeeding Data Local Agency Report, 2021.

⁹Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2020.

¹⁰Kennedy-Moulton et al, Maternal and Infant Health Inequality, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2022.

¹¹Health Benefit Strategy Report, Mercer, 2023.