A New Deal for Moms

Mom kept us safe, fed and well. She guided us through life's small lessons -- how to tie shoes -- and coached us in the big lessons of distinguishing right from wrong. She encouraged us to work hard at school and to play fairly with friends. She mediated sibling rivalry, managed the chaos of daily life and juggled dizzying logistics -- all while attending to tiny details that really matter, like keeping track of a favorite stuffed toy.

Caring for us came at a cost to mom's career. Workplace attitudes and practices continue to penalize mothers and keep the gender pay gap wide, even as it is narrowing for young women pre-motherhood.

This Mother's Day, organizations could drive gender equality forward if they were to adopt four key changes:

1. Acknowledge That Moms' Work Creates Value

Work done at home by mothers creates tangible economic value -- "positive externalities." Our nation and economy rest on the solid foundations of the homes moms built: better health and education outcomes; lower crime rates; and a steady supply of capable, educated and emotionally stable workers.

2. Put a Value on Moms' Skills

Although being away from work does lead to a loss of work skills, targeted retraining programs coupled with new tools (e.g., online training courses and apps) and new career reentry services make refreshing skills relatively easy. In the crucible of home life, mothers hone important skills like multi-tasking, time, resource and conflict management.

Developed at work, the same skills have economic value. If organizations sponsor research to quantify these homegrown skills and translate them to the workplace, it could enable millions of middle-management moms to rejoin career trajectories, increasing the female talent pipeline.

Organizations could also use the structure of their corporate volunteering programs to track caregiving skills and accredit volunteer work in partnership with external organizations (e.g., PTAs, United Way).

3. Change the Ideal Worker Assumption That Limits Moms' Career Potential

As junior employees are establishing their careers, men and women are roughly equally represented. In many professions, career tracks are reserved for "ideal workers" -- those available 24/7 to the company -- and keeping to a prescribed timetable is the prerequisite for staying on that career track. After parenthood (the mean maternal age of first birth in the U.S. was 26 years old in 2013), women choose positions and careers that offer flexibility in greater numbers than men, and their representation in middle management falls off quickly. By senior management only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Flexibility is a rational solution to caregiving, but it precludes "ideal worker" status, and is accompanied by significant long-term professional and financial opportunity costs. This creates an invisible "childcare cliff" dividing younger career track women who have yet to fall over it from middle management stage mothers, wary of harming their careers, or in part-time positions or isolated at home with children. Once off the career track they lack a collective voice to warn their younger colleagues or the corporate influence to impact HR policies. Women continue to go over the cliff, depleting the pool of senior female talent.

HR policies built around this "ideal worker image" sustain gender inequality. In her 2015 field study, Dr Erin Reid has showed that men have been better than women at "passing" or faking the image of an ideal worker. A change in HR policy is needed.

4. Adopt New Practical HR Solutions

Good childcare is important economically. Having children is a predictable and finite stage that can be planned around. Organizations should:

  • Foster an open dialogue about childcare "pre-cliff".

  • Create and promote modular, phased career paths for young mothers, predicated on quality and potential not "ideal worker status" or speed of achievement.
  • Rethink relationships with middle-management age mothers. Foster long-term "social relationships" to keep networks current and facilitate career reentry.
  • Change the rules for senior management. Be strategic about required qualifications and skills. Promote diverse life experiences and work-life balance for all executives. Be flexible about required experience and open-minded about how/where skills are demonstrated, including volunteer and unpaid caregiving work at home.
  • Recent research from McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were fifteen percent more likely to have financial returns above the national median for their industry. So this Mother's Day remember, doing the right thing is good for your business too. Mom will thank you.

    Note from author: This post was written for and about mothers, with Mother's Day in mind, but its logic and message is intended to apply to all caregivers -- fathers as well as mothers.