March is Women’s History month, and as the month draws to a close, it seems appropriate to highlight a piece of our history and current reality that won’t be soon forgotten—at least not by those who lived through it. I’m talking about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on working mothers, both in the years of lockdown and in the aftermath of those events.
In 2020 and 2021, 1.1 million women left the labor force, which accounted for 63% of jobs lost, and an economic loss of $650B. In early 2022, men were reentering the workforce en masse, while women were not. Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at National Women’s Law Center attributed this, at least in part, to the fact that, “women still hold the lion’s share of caregiver responsibilities.”
Now, in 2023, women are returning to the workforce at a faster pace than men, but this only holds true for college-educated women. So, how can employers help to even out this playing field and reduce the burdens—economic, physical, and mental—on working mothers? The first step is to better understand what those burdens entail.
Research reveals the reasons women leave work
McKinsey & Company has performed extensive research about the impact of the pandemic on women at work. Last year, their Women in The Workplace 2022 report showed that women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rate ever seen. Additionally, authors note, “Women leaders are significantly more likely than men leaders to leave their jobs because they want more flexibility or because they want to work for a company that is more committed to employee well-being and DEI.”
McKinsey also called attention to the childcare crisis that COVID exacerbated, and how employers might address these pain points to attract female talent back to the workplace. They note, “the childcare conundrum continues: workable childcare options remain elusive for those planning a return to the workforce, for those who never left, and particularly for working mothers with preschool-aged children.” As someone who falls into the last category, I would say, “100%. I couldn’t agree more.”
What McKinsey’s report ultimately alludes to is that working moms have multiple Jobs to Be Done, or progress that they’re trying to achieve across various areas, which lead them to “hire” or “fire” employers. These desires for progress are multifaceted with functional, emotional, and social dimensions. If employers better understand these Jobs to Be Done, they can craft their work environments and health benefits in ways that support working mothers. In doing so, they are likely to find that a rising tide lifts all ships. That is to say, in easing the conflict between work and home life for working moms, they’ll also support working dads, workers caring for aging parents or spouses, and the workforce generally.
To illustrate the facets of desires for progress, below I share the story of my experience as a working mother amidst the pandemic, the impact on my health, and what drove me to “hire” a new career amidst the global disaster. I’ll conclude with what employers can learn from women’s experiences and, specifically, what they can do to address women’s unmet Jobs to Be Done. Doing so will help them win in the war for talent.
Functional, social, and emotional components
My daughter was six months and five days old when I went home from work for the last time on March 13, 2020. “It was just for two weeks.” We all know now that it was not, in fact, “just two weeks.”
For months, my husband and I juggled an infant’s schedule, increasingly demanding workloads, day after day of back-to-back meetings, and mostly, we just tried to survive. We lived five hours from family, and with “stay at home” orders there weren’t options (or frankly, space) for outside help. This was not unique. This is what countless families did for years as they struggled to work and find affordable childcare.
Many days, I would breastfeed my daughter on work calls. It saved precious time. In the early months of working from home, I once gave a presentation on a call while feeding my daughter. (It was audio-only.) I didn’t have the gumption to decline the meeting and say “no, that’s when my daughter needs to eat.” The meeting was with a senior vice president, and a few of his VPs whose schedule needs all trumped mine. Also, they were all men. I didn’t know what to do apart from plowing through.
Effectively, I “hired” toughing it out to serve social and emotional parts of my desired progress: “help me meet my infant’s need for sustenance so I don’t feel like a bad mom,” and also, “help me appear to be a dedicated and intelligent leader so I can succeed at work.”
It took over a year, an interstate move to be closer to family, and multiple stress-induced health challenges to say, “I will not take 7 AM meetings. That is when my daughter wakes up. I do not have childcare until 8 AM.”
But no matter how many times I said it, I’d still get invited to 7 or 7:30 AM meetings. I understood that others had to move on and have the meeting when it served their schedules. After all, they were executives, and their schedules were the priority. But I felt trapped. I either let my child down, or I let my team down.
I needed to “hire” something that could serve the, “help me be a good parent and a good employee/leader, so I can take care of and provide for my family,” job.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger—and helps us identify better solutions for hire
I was part of a culture of impeccably driven and smart leaders, many of whom were also parents. But their children were in middle school, high school, or college. They could mostly care for themselves. Mine still needed me to change her diaper, feed her all of her meals, and make sure she didn’t climb up stairs alone. How could I survive this culture without making my family pay for it?
This question made me think of the wise words of a mentor who once answered my query about how he balanced his family and work by saying, “I think about who is going to miss me more if I’m not there. If it’s baseball practice, my son probably won’t miss me, and my boss will appreciate that I came to his small team dinner. But if it’s the final game of the season and my boss is giving a presentation to a crowd of 300, I’m going to the game.”
When discussing my work with friends or new acquaintances, people would say, “wow, you have a great job!” And I did. But I didn’t have a great job for my stage of life. Jobs to Be Done have two parts: the individual’s context, and their desired progress. My context was not a match for my position, and it wasn’t just because of changes brought on by COVID.
Right before the pandemic hit, we had our first team retreat. I helped my boss organize it, and it started at 7:30 AM. In those days, that was the time my five-month-old ate breakfast, for which I was the sole food source. I skipped her feeding that morning and had my husband give her a bottle of pumped milk so I wouldn’t be late. A few days later, I realized that was a bad choice.
In my planning of the retreat, I made sure to request a room to pump. When I arrived, I learned the “room” available was a bathroom. My very caring boss asked if the room was okay, and I just said “yes,” because at that point I didn’t know what else to do. (He was unaware it was a bathroom as the host showed me the “requested space” alone.)
I spent the mid-morning pump session standing with my pump resting on the sink praying no one would walk in. Luckily no one did. I got mastitis two days later. It turns out that skipping a morning feeding and shortening a pump session to miss less of a meeting created a recipe for disaster.
This is just one of the “you pumped where?” stories. Like many working mothers, I pumped in closets, in conference rooms that didn’t lock (and got walked in on more than once), in a parking garage in my car when no rooms were available, more bathrooms, and while driving between meetings—including once when I was rear ended, in the rain.
It was not sustainable. And I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t know who to tell or what to say.
Effectively, I didn’t know what to hire to help me make progress.
My story isn’t unique. Thousands of working moms find themselves in very similar situations each day. This is because, at their roots, many of the misalignments between work and home life are not the result of the pandemic.
They are the result of societal and employer structures that expect mothers to work like they aren’t parents, and to parent like they aren’t employees. This doesn’t work.
As a result of this structural misalignment, and in an effort to alleviate the feeling of constantly disappointing someone, I ultimately “fired” my job. And I “hired” one that met the social, emotional, and functional dimensions of the Jobs to Be Done highlighted above.
In short, I “hired” a role that provides flexible working hours and an organizational culture that prioritizes both professional excellence and family well-being equally. I also acknowledge that I am privileged and lucky to have fired the previous solution and hired one that helps me fulfill my desires for progress. Unfortunately, too many mothers lack the opportunity to make a similar change, leaving them stuck in unworkable situations.
Three steps for employers to attract and retain female talent while creating company success
The known conflicts between parenting and working—as highlighted by my personal, yet not unique, experience—together with McKinsey’s research, provide insights for how employers can win the war for talent. In doing so they can also promote long-term company success. After all, research shows that companies led by female CEOs are more profitable on average than those with male CEOs.
For long-term success, they must take an employee-oriented approach to their benefit and culture design. Specifically, they should execute the following three steps:
- Take the time to understand working mothers’ Jobs to Be Done. This includes the social, emotional, and functional components of their desired progress in life, which includes work and home.
- Based on understanding of these Jobs to Be Done, provide benefits such as reduced work hours, child care subsidies, on-site childcare, flexible work schedules, etc. For example, flexibility in how an employee structures their work day could include working only the hours their child(ren) are in school or daycare is available; working a hybrid work schedule with some days in the office and some days at home; working a shorter shift (i.e., six hours instead of eight hours); etc.
- Create a process to consistently seek feedback from employees on what is working and what isn’t. To keep women in the labor force, and better support their leadership pipelines and development, executives must understand what is working and what isn’t. Only then can they act in order to drive change that will keep women engaged.
Ensuring a focus on needs, and developing a feedback-to-implementation mechanism to understand and meet those needs, will enable employers to attract and retain mothers. Making work workable for working mothers helps families, companies, and the economy as a whole.
And if you’re a working mom, I just want to say: you are doing a wonderful job, and I hope you know it.