Most people have heard about the glass ceiling by now — the infamous barrier women face as they attempt to advance in their careers. Less is known or discussed about the maternal wall. The maternal wall is similar to the glass ceiling, but appears when women become pregnant or mothers. On top of the other obstacles we face as women, working mothers have to fight assumptions about our commitment and competence, as well as ingrained cultural biases that mothers should be at home with their children. The following twelve tips will help ensure your company doesn’t build a maternal wall.
1. Assess your current workplace
The first step you should take to ensure your company doesn’t build a maternal wall is to understand the current environment for mothers at your company. You may think you don’t have a problem, but if you haven’t conducted an honest self-assessment across all departments and levels of the company, it’s hard to know for sure. As you assess your workplace, be sure to evaluate each phase of the candidate and employee experience.
While you probably won’t have much data on the parental status of candidates, or even of employees, you can get a sense of working mothers’ experience through conversations with them. You can also conduct an empathy mapping exercise to put yourself in the position of working mothers in different roles throughout your company. As you go through this exercise, be honest about any areas where mothers might be disadvantaged at your company. This takes work upfront, but identifying actual pain points, rather than making decisions based on biased assumptions, is worth it. Once you’ve determined the areas that need improvement, you’re ready to make effective changes.
2. Eliminate maternal bias against job candidates
A study by Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard and In Paik found that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired than women without children. In order to address this top-of-the-funnel problem, examine your hiring practices. Where are you posting job openings? What language are you using in your job descriptions? Do you train recruiters to ignore gaps in resumes that might indicate time off for caregiving? Questions like these help you understand where in the funnel you might be alienating or penalizing candidates who are mothers.
You’ll broaden your talent pool and attract more mothers to your company if you post to places where mothers are more likely to see the opening, like email lists or local groups targeted at mothers. This takes more work than just posting on LinkedIn, but it also sends the message that your company is proactively hoping to attract mothers, which increases the likelihood that they’ll apply. Before circulating your job postings, make sure they highlight benefits that will appeal to mothers. While there is no “one size fits all” for working mothers, most will appreciate knowing that your company offers benefits like full health insurance coverage for employees and dependents, back-up childcare, and flexible working arrangements.
3. Improve the interview experience
Some interviewers are notorious for making last-minute changes to interview schedules. This creates a bad experience for all candidates, but can be particularly difficult for working mothers who may not have as much flexibility in their schedules. Other interviewers think they’re being personable by asking a candidate if she has children. While it isn’t illegal to ask about a candidate’s children or plans to become pregnant, it can create a presumption that a candidate’s parental status affected an employer’s decision to not hire them. Moreover, it detracts the interviewer from learning the candidate’s actual qualifications for the role.
To ensure your company doesn’t build a maternal wall against candidates, look into implementing structured interviews, with questions prepared in advance that are asked to all candidates. While they do take more time to craft, structured interviews are twice as effective as unstructured interviews in predicting future job performance. Structured interviews also reduce the possibility that an interviewer will ask biased questions that discriminate against mothers.
4. Encourage open conversations
It’s very easy for even well-intentioned managers to make assumptions about a working mother’s bandwidth and commitment. For example, a manager might decide against assigning a mother to a big project because it will involve extensive travel. Similarly, a manager might decide against promoting a pregnant woman because it will involve more work. Sometimes these types of decisions aren’t even made with an employee’s maternal status in mind. Instead, they can be subconscious decisions based on a lifetime of internalized assumptions about working mothers.
In order to ensure your company doesn’t build a maternal wall, it’s important to hold managers accountable for supporting working mothers. As we know, people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Provide training for the managers at your company to recognize maternal bias. Then, encourage them to fight their assumptions about working motherhood and have open, unbiased conversations with their direct reports. While some working mothers will appreciate a lighter workload and more flexible schedule, others will relish the opportunity to take on more work and travel. All employment decisions should be based on an employee’s qualifications and goals, not their parental status.
5. Allow flexible work for everyone
Regardless of parental status, employees are increasingly seeking out more flexible work arrangements. For working mothers, who tend to take on more parenting responsibilities than working fathers, workplace flexibility is especially critical. One way to meet this demand is to introduce a policy that permits flexible working hours and locations for all employees. By doing this, you can meet the demand from all parts of your organization, while at the same time making sure your company doesn’t build a maternal wall.
6. Categorize communications
Another approach your company can take to improve work-life balance for everyone is to encourage categorizing communications. With Slack, email and other tools, many companies have unintentionally created “always on” workplaces. This can put a strain on all employees, but is particularly onerous for working mothers. While juggling priorities, working mothers often worry they’re never fully present in any area of their life: They’re thinking of their kids when they’re at work and thinking of work when they’re with their kids. By including communication qualifiers like “can wait” or “urgent,” everyone knows what needs to be done right away and what can wait until Monday. This simple step helps minimize the strain working mothers feel juggling work and family even after the workday ends.
7. Provide paid family leave
Having a baby is a career inflection point for many working women. Depending on dozens of variables, it is a period of time when women make the decision to stall their careers or not. One such variable is paid maternity leave. Compared to women who don’t get paid maternity leave, women who do get paid maternity leave are 93 percent more likely to be working a year after they give birth. Google noticed that by increasing their paid leave policy by just a few weeks, they were able to reduce the rate of turnover after maternity leave by 50 percent. Other companies have seen similar returns on investment after introducing or increasing paid maternity leave. If your company is serious about knocking down the maternal wall, invest money in paid family leave.
8. Offer returnships
Mid-level career internships, or “returnships,” are temporary positions specifically targeted at people who have taken multiple years off work. While the reasons they’ve taken time off vary, most returnships attract women who took time off to raise children. Many of them have advanced degrees and years of experience. Unfortunately, they are easily overlooked by recruiters who spend seconds glancing at each resume and penalize candidates for work history gaps.
By creating a returnship program, your company can attract this vast, untapped market of qualified women. Moreover, you can capitalize on the diversity of thought and experience they bring to the workplace. Returnships also send the message that your company is an inclusive workplace for all people. If there isn’t bandwidth to create a full-scale program, then your company should at least train recruiters to ignore gaps in resumes that disproportionately bias them against mothers who took time off to care for children.
9. Create an employee resource group for parents
Creating programming specifically targeted at working mothers is another way companies have been able to knock down the maternal wall. One example of this type of programming is an employee resource group for parents. These groups help parents support each other on an emotional level through the hardships of working parenthood. They also help parents support each other on a practical level with childcare referrals, advice, hand-me-downs and more. This collaboration and support makes working mothers feel wanted at the office, which helps with retention.
10. Host family-friendly events
Employee events are another area of company programming that can serve to either build or knock down the maternal wall. As you’re planning events, consider activities that are inclusive of working mothers as well as their families. While the occasional happy hour won’t alienate all working moms, be sure to also mix in events during the workday as well as family-friendly weekend events. Taking this step helps ensure working mothers aren’t excluded from unofficial internal networking opportunities that can help advance their careers.
11. Evaluate compensation annually
By now, most people recognize that there is a gender-based pay gap. What is less known is the gap between women with kids and women without kids. Studies suggest that this gap could be wider than the gap between women without children and men. One particularly compelling piece of research on maternal bias in compensation found that even with identical resumes and past performance reviews, candidates who are identified as mothers were “offered $11,000 lower starting salaries than equally qualified childless women.”
Many forward-thinking companies have started evaluating compensation practices to make sure they are fair across genders. To ensure your company’s compensation practices aren’t biased against mothers, it’s important to evaluate salaries looking not only at gender, but also at parental status. Many companies avoid diving this deep into their pay practices. These companies are concerned that admitting they had a problem could expose them to legal liability, but the opposite is true. If you discover any discrepancies, proactively remedy them as soon as you can. By recognizing the problem and taking action to improve it, you’ll actually be building a defense against any potential claims.
12. Set an example for your team
Of course, it isn’t enough for your company to introduce new policies to support working mothers and stop there. A family-friendly culture needs to permeate all levels of the company, including the executive level. If company leadership doesn’t model a healthy work/life balance, most employees won’t feel empowered to take advantage of the policies.
If you’re a manager and working parent, be vocal about your use of the company’s family-friendly policies. Keep pictures of your kids at your desk. Let people know when you’re leaving early to tend to a sick kid or attend a ballet recital. Encourage other managers in your company to do the same. By removing the stigma around juggling work and parenthood, you can prevent your company from building a maternal wall.
You don’t have to invest thousands of dollars on expensive perks like onsite childcare or “flying nannies.” Benefits like those are amazing, but what working mothers really need is a workplace that acknowledges maternal bias exists and works to fight it. Many of the most-impactful interventions don’t cost a dime.
Eliminating bias in the candidate experience will help your company attract more working mothers. Encouraging managers to have open conversations will help counteract the biased assumptions that make up the maternal wall. Introducing policies that allow for flexible work and paid leave, as well as pay equity reviews and inclusive programming, will help your company retain more working mothers. And finally, setting the tone from the top will ensure that working mothers can thrive while taking advantage of the efforts you’ve put forth to make sure your company doesn’t build a maternal wall.
Kelli Newman Mason is Head of Talent at New Knowledge. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.