By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
According to a Baylor University study published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology, women who return to work after giving birth are more likely to stay on the job if they have greater control over their work schedules. Researchers also found that job security and the ability to make use of a variety of their job skills leads to greater retention of working moms, while the impact of work-related stress on their physical and mental health causes greater turnover.
According to 2008 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71 percent of women with children under the age of 18 were working or looking for work, and nearly 60 percent of women with young children were employed. Yet, a large number of mothers who return to work after childbirth subsequently leave the labor force.
As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. By revealing the needs of this group of women (all North Carolina residents with an average age of 31; 79 percent of them married), the Baylor study sheds light on what working mothers are looking for.
On the other hand, one has to wonder why studies like these are still being conducted. After all, is it an earth shattering revelation that a woman who just gave birth will now need more work flexibility? Is it shocking to learn that a woman who has job stability is more apt to stay at her place of employment and be productive because there’s no nagging fear of losing her job?
It shouldn’t be, and perhaps that’s the point.
Entering the Public World
Marie Wilson is the president and founder of The White House Project, an organization whose premise is that if you add women to the ranks of leadership, you change everything. Wilson has been advocating for women’s issues for over 40 years and in that time she’s witnessed the monumental shifts that women have made since entering “the public world.”
Not too long ago, women were expected to stay out of the public – it was believed that a woman’s place was in the private sphere, meaning her life was to revolve around family life and the home. Once women entered the “public world,” which is to say the workforce, they had their work cut out for them. According to Wilson, this emergence required deep social and cultural changes and the idea of women as just mothers was so deeply ingrained that it’s something women must still combat today, which is why issues like the mommy penalty are still so prevalent.
Working mothers constantly find themselves in a Catch 22: They want to be treated equally, but a majority of domestic responsibilities still fall on them, which is why they need workplace flexibility. Another problem is that many employers fail to realize that flexibility not only benefits working mothers, but working fathers and families as a whole. After all, women now make up 51 percent of the total U.S. workforce and according to Census Bureau figures from 2010, 66 percent of couples both hold down jobs.
“The Baylor University Study may not have revealed anything groundbreaking, but it’s interesting that men are now beginning to feel many of the same pressures that women have been under for years,” Wilson said.
“Cultural and social changes happen very slowly and we’re at a time in history where men are making major shifts. They want to be engaged fathers, so they’re taking the responsibility of being the primary caregivers to their children or they’re refusing to take jobs that don’t offer flexibility. I’m assuming that more companies are going to get on board with workplace flexibility because now it’s a problem that affects men and a majority of leaders are men – and we take them very seriously.”
Is Time On Our Side?
According to Wilson, one of the biggest obstacles to getting companies on board with offering their employees more flexible work options is fear – fear of change and fear of lost revenue. After all, time is money and asking a company to restructure how and when it allows its employees to work can be a daunting task. Despite numerous studies that reveal how much more productive employees are and how much more lucrative business can be just by offering job sharing and flexible work options, many are still reluctant to make the first step.
Wilson believes Joan Williams, foundering director of the Center for WorkLife Law, is doing important work in this area by identifying different areas of the workforce that don’t offer flexibility and conducting studies in those areas to illustrate why flexibility is so vital. In a recent column, Williams explained how unions and employers came together to make work-life balance a reality for hourly workers in health care, restaurants, and small business, but argued that four simple rules could be applied to provide flexible work options to employees in any field.
By creating a dependable schedule, setting up a formal system for handling schedule changes, addressing the issue of overtime, and offering hourly workers short periods of time off work, companies will be well on their way to offering their working parents the flexible work options many so desperately need. “Bottom line, Williams wrote, “is that if these employers can improve the work-life balance for movers, health care workers, and retail and restaurant staff, this can be done anywhere, in any job.”
On the Center for WorkLife Law’s website, Williams also details how working mothers can be retained, with one of the first suggestions being the most simple and perhaps the most overlooked: finding out what their needs are. Williams also recommends designing parental leaves and stop-the-clock policies, maternal and paternal leave, treating pregnancy leave the same as other kinds of disability leave, designing parental leave policies based on caretaking status (not gender), providing central funding for leave, and designing “opt-out” instead of “opt-in” policies.
“The best companies in the world offer flexible work options, but not everyone has the luxury of working at these companies,” Wilson said. “Options must be presented in a way that makes it clear flexibility will benefit the company. We’ve come a long way, but until companies have reliable childcare centers and other programs in place that benefit working parents and families, there’s still a great deal of work to be done.”