In the second week of March last year, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, we gathered up our things and abruptly left schools and offices without realizing just how long we would be gone.
Suddenly, it wasn’t either work or family competing for our focus. It was both/and: all of it, all at once, at all times. There was no balance to be had, only “Please God, let me just make it through this day without losing my job, my sanity, or my $#!*.”
The irony was, our situation forced us into something that many of us craved: integration. We conducted meetings with kids on our laps and scheduled breaks to attend to family needs. We showed our employers just how much work we could get done from home, even if it wasn’t between the hours of nine and five.
But it didn’t come without a cost. The constant negotiation between two disparate identities was draining—mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially.
It’s clear, now, that there are certain non-negotiables that must be elevated to official policy if we are to thrive as parents, as businesses, and as a society. Herewith, in my open request to employers, is one working parent’s list of appeals.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
The pandemic impacted women and their careers far more than it did men, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. When family emergencies or a lack of childcare force one parent in a two-parent household out of the workforce, it’s most often women who leave to care for the family, according to a Pew Research report.
Part of the reason is because women, in general, make less money. When one parent in a partnership needs to stay home, it will likely be the parent who brings home a smaller paycheck. And when women step away from their careers, even temporarily, they miss out on raises and promotions, and are set back in retirement savings, according to an article in Forbes magazine. In addition, a report from the American Sociological Review says people who opt out of the workforce to parent are half as likely to get callbacks as those who are unemployed for a time.
A verbal commitment to equal pay is not enough. Employers need internal review committees and accountability measures to make sure it’s actually happening. Why? Because it’s too easy to justify less income for the same job based on something like, say, a five-year career hiatus to care for family.
Flexibility is Paramount
There’s only one way that managing a career and a family works, and that’s giving employees the flexibility to attend to the needs of their children when necessary. And this can’t just be an accommodation made for mothers; it is paramount that fathers are afforded flexibility too.
Here’s why: Women need to offload some of the caretaking responsibilities if we will ever achieve true parity in the workforce. One study from the American Sociological Review found that the penalty for re-entering the workforce after a hiatus was steeper for men than women—because raising children is still considered a woman’s job.
Offer Paid Family Leave
A gender-neutral family leave policy is a necessity for working parents. The United States is the only country out of 41 in a Pew Research Center study that does not offer federally mandated family leave, a fact that also contributes to parents stepping away from their careers. (In Colorado, Proposition 118 passed in the 2020 election, which would provide paid leave for families in our state, but the proposition will not take effect until 2024.) This hurts more than the family—it hurts our economy, too.
And don’t assume the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) will be enough. Not only is FMLA unpaid leave, but also it has always been nuanced: to be eligible, you must work at a company for at least one year for at least 24 hours a week, that company must have a minimum of 50 employees, and those employees must live within 75 miles of the company worksite. As our workforce becomes more and more remote, qualifying for FMLA will be harder than ever.
Create a Culture of Representation
We need working parents in leadership roles, and we need our leaders to model successful work-family integration. We need mentorship opportunities, skills workshops, and coaching for up-and-coming leaders who are living the work/family juggle—not just because it offers support, but because if someone needs to take family leave, we must support them with ongoing skills training so that they are relevant to the profession when they return.
Take a look at your office culture. Are you attracting mature professionals with experience as well as green talent, fresh out of school? As someone who has worked for multiple startups, I can tell you that startup culture is perhaps the least conducive to working parents. The startup M.O. is hiring young talent at low income levels—which works if you provide office happy hours, team-building field trips after work hours, and games in the break room.
A working parent can almost never participate in happy hours or after-hours events, because we have kids to pick up. Instead of a game room, we need nursing rooms that aren’t bathroom stalls, and we need income levels that can support mortgage payments and childcare bills.
A New Vision Forward
The pandemic highlighted our shortcomings as a society, but the path forward is up to us to decide. Do we want to return to a “normal” with high costs for people, businesses, and the economy overall? Or do we want to take the lessons learned during the pandemic to reimagine a future that will serve us for years to come?
I know the answer parents working outside of the home will give. I hope our employers meet us at the table.