Much has been written about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on working mothers. While past recessions have typically impacted men more than women, the 2020 economic shockwave brought on by the coronavirus disproportionately affected females.
The reasons for this vary. Sectors that were hit hardest by pandemic lockdowns, such as leisure and hospitality, have a higher rate of female workers. However, as employers pivoted to remote work along with many schools across the country, many women were forced to make the difficult decision of leaving the labor force to care for their children.
In March 2021, almost 1.5 million fewer moms of school-aged children were actively working than in February 2020, according to Misty Heggeness, principal economist and senior adviser at the Census Bureau. During the depths of last year’s economic crisis, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show, women’s participation in the workforce fell to levels not seen since the mid-1980s. The situation was similar in parts of Europe and Latin America.
This necessary sacrifice also serves to exacerbate the gender wage gap in what’s termed as the “motherhood penalty.” When the gender pay gap is discussed, much attention is paid on the widely reported statistic that full-time, working women earn just 80 cents for every dollar paid to a male. What is less discussed, until recently, is the wage gap that exists between working mothers and fathers.
A study by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that working mothers earn just 71 cents for every dollar paid to a father. This gap translates to a loss of $16,000 per year. In the context of the pandemic, a recent study by Oxfam International found that women across the globe lost at least $800 billion in income in 2020.
However, vaccine rollout has gone better than expected in the United States and parts of Europe, which is leading to renewed hope for schools going back to in-person learning in the fall. In addition, economic recovery is well underway and the hiring windfall is expected to continue throughout 2021.
Thus, the onus will fall on employers to reintegrate mothers back into the workplace.
Organizations looking to attract working moms back into the workforce may need to get creative with their offerings. The pandemic and ensuing government response highlighted the importance of paid parental leave, which has already emboldened some companies to address this need.
Volvo, for example, recently announced it would begin offering its employees six months of paid parental leave. The Swedish automaker said employees who take the full 24 weeks will be paid 80% of their base compensation and the leave can be taken anytime within the first three years of parenthood. Employees can also opt for 19 weeks of paid leave at 100% of their base pay within 36 months of becoming a parent.
“We want to create a culture that supports equal parenting for all genders,” said Håkan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo. “When parents are supported to balance the demands of work and family, it helps to close the gender gap and allows everyone to excel in their careers. We have always been a family-oriented and human-centric company. Through the Family Bond program, we are demonstrating and living our values, which in turn will strengthen our brand.”
In India, Mondelez International, an American multinational confectionery, food, holding and beverage and snack food company based in Chicago, announced its employees would be reimbursed for expenses incurred on in-house nanny services. The policy, which is applicable for employees with children aged from six months to four years, also includes those who have taken the adoption or surrogacy route to parenting.
“Managing work from home for new parents is a tough task, given that [nurseries] are not open at every location,” Mahalakshmi R, Mondelez India’s HR director told the Times of India. “We have expanded the ‘[nursery] benefit’ under our new parents policy to include in-house nanny services till such time that [nurseries] around India are operational again. This will provide greater flexibility to our colleagues in managing parenting and work.”
This announcement came in March, before India became the epicenter for coronavirus infections.
Employers are also likely to promote more work flexibility as a talent attractor for working mothers as well as stipends, which have increased in prevalence in recent years, said Megan Sowa, director, health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson.
“When disparities are noticed, they need to be addressed. Employers simply cannot afford to take steps backwards when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Sowa said.
“Women, and Black and Hispanic women especially, have historically faced more challenges than men so it is the responsibility of all employers to acknowledge this and do more to not only get women back into the workplace, but foster their professional development so that we see more women in senior and executive leadership positions. A diverse, equitable workforce is a more productive and profitable workforce.”
Foundation in Place
In certain sectors, programs are already in place for reintegrating workers — female workers in particular — back into the workplace. The coined phrase for these programs are “returnships” and they’re structured as paid, internship-like experiences that include mentorship and programming. Direct hire programs were the next evolution of this model, as it retained the mentoring and programming elements, but participants were hired as employees from day one.
These programs began on Wall Street nearly 20 years ago as a way to correct the gender imbalances that plagued the finance field as women advanced to more senior roles, noted the Harvard Business Review. By the end of 2014, five major Wall Street and financial services firms had established return-to-work programs, and by 2015 the tech sector followed suit with the launch of the STEM Reentry Task Force.
Today, 34% of the Fortune 50 have their own, in-house return-to-work programs, with the typical returnship program resulting in four out of five full-time hires, on average.
Given these instruments are already in place, it would benefit these same organizations to adapt them to the current needs. In that same vein, it would behoove companies without them to introduce similar programs to reintroduce working moms now and in the future.
“It is too soon to tell if [organizations] will adapt these programs, but where management is trained in how to support a diverse workplace it should support attracting and retaining diverse talent,” Sowa said. “Employers are increasingly interested in leadership development programs for female and other marginalized employees. These programs not only provide direct career coaching and support to women, but also work with employers to ensure they are trained to support employees and avoid burnout.”
About the Author
Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.