Career Path

Dear Moms: We Know It's Hard

The workplace is still fraught with issues for working moms. How to navigate the pitfalls—and push for better parity.

The stories are so common they almost don’t elicit reactions anymore: Of new mothers having to go back to work before their babies are even six weeks old. Of being passed over for promotions because they didn’t work the traditional 9-to-5 workday. Of crippling guilt from missing a child’s school play because of a mandatory corporate meeting.

From a 30,000-foot view, the workplace has improved drastically for today’s working moms compared to past generations. Indeed, according to one study, only 2% of women plan to leave their current organization due to family responsibilities. More companies are offering realistic parental leave policies, and the rise of remote working has allowed many mothers to stay in the workforce in a variety of capacities. At the same time, research is helping relieve (some) mom guilt: one study shows children of working moms end up just as happy in adulthood as the children of moms who stayed at home. Whew.

The optimal maternity leave length is 26 weeks—or 6.5 months.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more work to be done. As Mother’s Day arrives, here’s how you can keep pushing these important issues forward in the workplace—for your own benefit or the next generation’s.

A better transition back.

The statistic remains grim. Unlike every other developed country, the United States doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, even though a National Institutes of Health study shows the optimal maternity leave length is 26 weeks—or 6.5 months.

And when new moms do go back, they’re met with little understanding regarding their new needs: a space and time to pump breastmilk (60% of women aren’t given the time or place to express milk on the job, despite it being mandated by federal law), needing to rearrange meeting times for childcare drop-off, wanting to stave off work trips at first.

While you may not be able to change your company’s parental leave and nursing room policies overnight, you can try to alter the views of your colleagues and bosses by raising awareness. Realize that companies still view maternity leave as a major disruption because of longstanding unconscious biases. One of the best things you can do to combat this is to start conversations about leave—how it can come in many forms (working part time instead of full time, or working remotely), is individual (the needs of one mom may be very different from that of another), and, ultimately, isn’t as catastrophic to the workplace as some companies may think.

Flexible work hours.

Children get sick, have a litany of doctor appointments, and, as they get older, field trips and soccer tournaments. All of which may infringe on your workday and make you start to wonder how you’ll ever get it all done. But here’s a stat that’ll give you hope: The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that mothers are more productive than their childless peers—with moms who have two or more children being the most productive of all.

Career pros say one of the best arguments for flexible working hours is to communicate effectively and then—and this is crucial—completely follow-through. By doing this, you’ll show that while you may not be working traditional office hours, you’re getting your work done—and excelling at it. 

The motherhood wage gap.

Korn Ferry’s research shows that much of the wage gap is happening because women remain significantly underrepresented in the most senior and highest-paying jobs. One factor in why this is happening is maternity leave and motherhood; many women find they cannot accelerate their careers when they’re about to go on leave or raising their children. The reason is twofold: On one hand, many mothers may feel the competing demands of a career and family hold them back from raising their hand for a promotion or new position. But it also is in the view of companies and bosses, who, whether consciously or unconsciously, may feel that a working mom can’t handle the pressures of top jobs.

If you’re looking to climb the corporate ladder, highlight how your work has gotten better since you became a mom. Prioritize what’s important, be organized, speak up for what you need and be patient. In time, the pieces will hopefully come together.