In 70 percent of households with children, all parents work and there are more women in the workforce and a larger need for child care than ever before. However, mothers are still taking on the majority of the child care burden, even when both parents work full-time. If you are an employer who wants to attract and retain mothers in your workplace, you need to be thinking about child care and maternity leave is not the solution.
Four years ago when I became a parent, I felt this firsthand. When I returned to work after maternity leave as the Director of Product at a tech startup, I found myself struggling to balance late nights in the office with the responsibilities of taking care of my new child. I also felt really alone in my caregiving responsibilities, embarrassed to pump breast milk at the office, and afraid to miss work to take my daughter to doctor's appointments.
When I left my job and decided to start my own company a few months later, I had this insight--childbearing women tend to be in the prime of their careers. Wouldn't it be advantageous for an employer to support them?
I explicitly decided to create a company that valued the parenting responsibilities of its employees. I never wanted to feel like I had to choose between being excellent at my job and being a great mom, and I didn't want my employees to have to choose either.
One of the solutions discussed in a recent Democratic presidential debate, as well as touted by many employers, is maternity leave. Assuming that maternity leave will solve working mothers' child care challenges is misguided though. Parenting doesn't just last for a few months; it's a long term gig. A few simple changes to your work culture can make parent employees feel supported rather than alienated and burnt out.
Encourage Paternity Leave
So what role does maternity leave play? As a first step to addressing the child care struggle many working women face, maternity leave needs to be expanded to parental leave and applied equally to all parents. Raising children is a huge responsibility, and one way to reduce the burden of this responsibility is to equally share it from the very beginning.
If you own or run a business, not only should you offer equal leave to fathers, you need to make it socially acceptable and even encouraged that fathers actually take their leave in order to have the intended impact on working mothers.
Start at the Top
Next, it's important to set an example from the top that having kids is 100 percent compatible with having a fulfilling career and never something you have to hide. One recent example--my co-founder and I are both (coincidentally) pregnant. When we announced our pregnancies to our employees early on, they erupted in cheers and congratulations.
Don't just pay lip service to the idea that parents can be their most productive during their childbearing and child rearing years; live it. I wear my pregnancy and motherhood duties like a badge of honor and make a point to share when I'm missing work for an ultrasound or to attend an event for one of my kids.
Think About the Day-To-Day
More importantly, think about how you treat employees once they come back to work after having a child. This is where employers, regardless of the benefits they offer, have the power to make all the difference for their employees.
Have a flexible work environment so employees can take care of personal matters and work from home when they need to. Along with flexibility, communicate the expectation that nights and weekends are not for work.
Introduce Part-Time Positions
Finally, not all positions need to be 40 or more hours per week. A lot can be accomplished in just 10 or 20 hours per week and employers should think creatively about whether each position requires a full-time employee.
Roles that are fewer hours can help parents better align the work day with the school day, which typically ends at 3 pm. And as an employer, you can save money this way too on roles that need not be full-time.
In parenting, unlike in work, quality time with your kids does matter. When employers understand and respect that, it can make all the difference. Let's change the conversations around child care so they're not just about paid maternity leave, but also about leveling the playing field for women, and making all working parents feel more supported day to day.