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Will COVID-19 set working moms back? No, that’s not how our story goes

Companies need to ensure that working mothers aren’t set back generations during this crisis. It’s a moral imperative, as well as a business one.

Will COVID-19 set working moms back? No, that’s not how our story goes
[Photo: Ketut Subiyanto/Unsplash]

With parents doubling the time they spend on education and household tasks, report after report shows that working mothers are carrying the bulk of this burden. They’re providing close to 70% of childcare during the day, causing them to reduce their working hours and, in many cases, forcing them to step back from their careers entirely. This summer, we’ve seen  countless articles repeating the same warning: We might be on the brink of eradicating the gains women have made in the workplace over generations. With daycare and school openings in limbo, working mothers (whether they’re working from home or heading back to offices) are stretched too far.

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Here I sit, 39 weeks pregnant, planning my older kids’ return to virtual school in a couple of weeks, and I find myself getting more and more furious at how this crisis is disproportionately impacting working women. I’d like to formulate some sort of articulate response, but only one comes to mind: absolutely not.  

This is absolutely not inevitable; it’s absolutely not acceptable; and it’s absolutely not how our story goes.

Now’s the time for everyone running companies, from early-stage startups to the biggest corporations, to refuse to be complicit in setting women back generations. To say “absolutely not” with one voice, and get to work on engineering better cultures and policies. Consider this a working mom’s take on where to start. The threats are clear, but so are many of the solutions. 

Threat: There are too many competing priorities during work hours

With women shouldering most of the burden of childcare and homeschooling during the daytime hours, there are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all. One of the smartest, easiest, and fastest solutions for companies looking to provide relief and maximize performance is to shift to flexible hours. This means giving total scheduling autonomy to your employees. 

As a leader, this requires a little work, such as familiarizing yourself with the education requirements of your employees’ local school system. If homeschooling hours are between 8:30 a.m. and noon, do your best to ensure that critical meetings are not scheduled during that time. For this approach to be viable, managers must focus performance objectives on output instead of time spent. They must eliminate arbitrary deadlines and faux emergencies and become more intentional in the way they communicate. Not only is schedule flexibility a more intuitive and empathetic way to manage teams, it encourages them to work more effectively and efficiently.

As a bonus, by making sure all employees, not just working mothers, have ownership of their own schedules, you also set up the opportunity for fathers, neighbors, siblings, and friends to lend a hand—or simply enjoy more flexibility to work on other life priorities.

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Threat: Women are cut out of crucial conversations

If you find yourself making decisions via side chats with those who happen to be on Slack at 11 p.m., you’re failing at internal communications. You might look at this as a heroic attempt to spare the valuable time of your working mother colleague, or you might simply think it’s a more “efficient” way to advance a project, but it isn’t smart, it isn’t equitable, and it isn’t worth it.

If you find yourself making decisions via side chats with those who happen to be on Slack at 11 p.m., you’re failing at internal communications.

This approach means your organization misses out on the expertise of the women you cut out. It also pretty clearly demonstrates how much (or how little) they’re respected and valued within your organization. And more often than not, it ends up being less efficient because it results in crossed wires, missed details, and hasty decision making. 

The remedy? Get more organized about the way meetings are handled and decisions are made. Streamline key decisions to meetings where all stakeholders are present, set a clear example by discouraging back-channel conversations, and develop internal communications procedures that keep everyone in the loop. 

Threat: Daycare and schools aren’t aligned with office reopenings

During World War II, as the government drew women out of their homes and into the factories, there was a huge open question about how to do it: With women at work, who would take care of the children? They rapidly conceived of and authorized funding for a solution: universal daycare for the children of women who took jobs in factories or government offices to aid the war effort. The program put federally subsidized childcare centers in nearly every state, and 6 million women participated in the war effort.

Maybe one day childcare services will become part of our labor infrastructure again, but until that time, companies looking to keep their talent are the ones that must act. Factoring childcare and education into your benefits program now will set you up to attract and retain talent. Financial relief like stipends for childcare and flexible family leave policies are an easy place to start, but there’s much more opportunity than that

How about working with organizations to facilitate the creation of teaching and childcare pods for employees? Or dedicating a portion of your office to on-site childcare or socially distanced play areas? Startups are no strangers to using benefits, perks, and amenities to draw talent and keep employees happy. With standard in-office items like stocked open kitchens and weekly yoga on hiatus, now’s a good time to assess which perks will actually make the biggest impact going forward. Polling your employees about which amenities they actually care about may surprise you, and adjustments here can help make room in your budget for the kinds of benefits that support working moms. 

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Threat: Women are often automatically the ones to tag out

When a family has to decide who steps back to stay at home, there are plenty of things that factor into that decision. But one of the primary factors is simple: Who makes more money? Eliminating any pay gaps within your sphere of influence will make you more competitive. You’re not just competing with other firms for talent; in this economy, you’re competing against the cost of childcare and the salary of your employee’s partner. Even with fair compensation and under the best of circumstances, some women will still have to leave the workforce. One solution to that is making the transition back as easy as possible.

What would make it easier for moms to step back into the workforce? First, embrace the remote working reality and open up your hiring to any location. Next, base compensation on the experience and value they bring, not just their last salary. Finally, commit to hiring working mothers. Make this an objective for your recruiters or partner with organizations like The Mom Project to diversify your pipeline.

Threat: Believing that a mom’s reality is the same as yours

Being a true ally for working mothers requires facing the reality of this situation with clear eyes, instead of presumptions. This is tricky for child-free managers, but can be even trickier for working dads who may be tempted to equate their own experiences with those of their female colleagues. To be sure, working fathers have been burdened by COVID-19, although their partners may not agree with their assessments of just how much. But the experience of working mothers is fundamentally different. That experience includes the invisible and unending “mommy” to-do list like scheduling appointments and play dates, and the continuous emotional labor of managing their kids’ feelings while also managing their own anxiety about losing pace in their careers.

Any accurate way forward must incorporate the realities of working mothers, which means we need to make sure those women have a voice in shaping the cultures and policies that come next. Although working fathers may have it harder than before, that’s not the urgent conversation we need to be having at this moment.

This moment has brought us to a critical crossroads. One that will not only determine the fate of working mothers, but also whether the companies we’re building today are resilient, strong, and positioned to succeed. Do we let ourselves slide backward now and await the consequences? Or, do we take this opportunity to make our companies regression-proof by creating policies that reduce the burden on working women? For companies hoping to shape the future, the stakes are far too high not to act right now.


Leah Solivan is the founder of TaskRabbit and the general partner at Fuel Capital.

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