Working parenthood in America really is as hard as it feels, but how can businesses give families the support they need?
When my second child was born, I had a significantly harder time getting back into a groove than I did the first time around. While maternity leave had been easier in many ways, returning to full-time work as a mother of two was much more challenging. Why couldn’t I get it together?
Part of me feared the problem was with me, but I also had a sneaking suspicion that my experience reflected something bigger. So between my background in a data-driven profession and role as a constant information-seeking millennial parent, I did what came naturally: I dug into the research.
I found the effects of sleeplessness on working parents linger long past the fourth trimester, and that mothers have higher chronic stress levels at work than women without children. I learned that when fathers take longer paternity leave, mothers andchildren benefit too, and I discovered that universal child care increases women’s participation in the workforce.
Individually, the insights were fascinating. Relatable, if you’re a parent. Shareable over a dinner table, or social media platform. But, individually, they didn’t tell the whole story.
It’s a question I’m asked a lot. Since writing about these issues, I’ve heard from company leaders, heads of HR, and parental policy advocates, as well as plenty of parents. Employers want to know how to build cultures that support parents, while employees want to know how to evaluate whether or not an organization is truly family friendly. After all, a company’s outward-facing ethos or mission does not necessarily reflect internal policies.
My advice is largely the same to both employers and employees: Benefits packages speak volumes on company values.
Here’s what to look for when it comes to supporting working parents:
One quick way to know if a company’s purported support for working families is real: Look at the numbers. With companies that publish their annual diversity reports, check to see if the number of caregivers (any person who gives care to people who need help taking care of themselves) within an organization has been included. This is a good indication that a company has recruiting and retaining caregivers on their radar.
2. Bare minimum parental benefits.
While only eight U.S. states have paid family leave policies on the books, 40% of employers offer the benefit. This number is growing due to changing attitudes and competitive necessity, with a 15% increase occurring in just the past three years. But paid leave — for both birth and adoptive parents — is just one step in the right direction. Mother’s rooms and nursing mothers’ travel assistance that enables milk storage, and a ramp-back period of part-time work for full-time pay during new parents’ return to work should also be industry standard.
3. Caregiver assistance.
Since 1991, the cost of childcare has more than tripled (though today’s wages provide no greater purchasing power they did 40 years ago), and access to early childhood programs is the U.S. is widely unavailable or limited. Only 24 of the 40 largest cities offer pre-K to more than 30% of four-year-olds. It’s well known that child-rearing (and eldercare) responsibilities disproportionately affect women, so offering childcare support to all employees is the strongest statement an organization can make in its commitment toward reducing gender disparities. When looking at a company, ask yourself: Is caregiver support of any kind provided? It can be on-site, nearby, or subsidized. Flex-, part-time, and remote work options qualify.
4. Flexible, part-time, and remote work options.
Today’s workers, and tomorrow’s, place tremendous value on having influence over schedules. What’s more, research shows predictable, flexible schedules effectively shrink gender pay gaps. But it’s not just parents who benefit. A Pew Research Center study of younger workers found men were more likely than women to choose flexible work arrangements as the most helpful benefit. And people without children were as likely as parents to say the flexibility to choose when they worked mattered most when it came to work arrangements. While flex programs are on their way to becoming the norm, an organization can distinguish itself as family-friendly by adopting such policies “before they were cool.”
5. A caregiver employee resource group.
Employee Resource Groups consist of employee-led affinity and ally volunteers who work with leadership and HR to promote inclusivity within a company. These internal advocacy groups can point to an active dialogue between employees and management on corporate values and culture. Further, partnering with benefits teams, particularly ones with dedicated resources for caregivers at work, actively steers policies that successfully address pain points for working families.
Company cultures that enable working parents to thrive inherently value the same basic tenets that allow everyone to thrive: respect and trust for employees, recognition that employees are human beings, and incentive structures that encourage a healthy and sustainable relationship with work. These are the makings of a great place to work. Not just for working parents, but for everyone.