Has the State of Working Mothers Evolved?

Not much has changed for working mothers in the United States in the last half century. While governments in countries like Germany and Sweden seem to be making it easier for mothers to balance work and family, thanks to mandated maternity leave that protects a woman’s job for up to a year, U.S. employers don’t appear to be following suit.

The most common problem working mothers face is access to child care. For many, little has been done to address this problem.

One argument that has been made is that companies in the U.S. don’t have government incentives to offer working mothers free child care and maternity support as many Scandinavian and European companies do. Because of this, many women in the U.S. opt to leave the workforce for extended periods of time to raise their children.

“Child care is very expensive and one of the reasons women leave the workforce as they add to their families,” said Susan Newman, a social psychologist and independent consultant. “For many, working doesn’t cover the costs.”

In addition, for women who elect to stay in the workforce, many feel pressure to shorten their paid or unpaid maternity leave for fear of losing their job, Newman said. “Someone is always waiting to take your spot.”

The most significant step a company can take to accommodate and help working mothers is to offer them a flexible work environment, said Julie Straw, vice president at Inscape Publishing and co-author of “The Work of Leaders: How Vision, Alignment and Execution Will Change the Way You Lead.”

Companies, for example, could allow employees to choose their hours. If they need to leave work a little early to pick up their kids from school, they could come in earlier to compensate, Straw said. “As long as the work is getting done and people are present during core hours, they can be flexible in family needs.”

Some companies have also instituted job sharing, where a position is filled by two employees who split the workload and salary while working on a collaborative team. While many companies may only think of positions in terms or full time or part time, Straw said there is room to get creative and explore new possibilities.

But flexible work options — compressed work weeks, telecommuting and job sharing — have been slow to catch on in the workplace despite the increase in demand, according to a 2012 study from the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research firm.

If companies are not able to accommodate flexible work hours for employees, creating a family-friendly work culture can also help support working mothers, Straw said. Having an open discussion about challenges facing working mothers, for example, could lead to the formation of support groups with like-minded co-workers, which could potentially relieve some of the daily stress.

“We as working moms have to make the decision to silo our lives a little bit,” Straw said. “When you are at work, give work 100 percent. When you are at home, give your kids and family 100 percent. Working mothers sometimes set their expectations so high it’s almost impossible to achieve. There are only so many hours in a day.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.