If parenting is the toughest unpaid job there is, how can we compensate the 26 million working in America today? For starters, we need to stop talking out of both sides of our mouths. Society says our children are lacking in parental guidance–but, at the same time, we want men and women to compete for jobs and find rewarding careers.
Lisa Benenson, editor-in-chief of Working Mother magazine, believes corporate America has lately tried to improve the work-life balancing act for mothers. Since the magazine began publishing its “Best Companies for Working Mothers” survey in 1986, the number of listed firms rose from 30 to 100. And, with nearly a million subscribers, competition for a spot on the list has grown fierce. Employers earn the Working Mother distinction by implementing benefit plans and initiatives that greatly improve the quality of life for employees.
“The single most important benefit for working moms is flex time,” says Benenson. “If you can’t take the morning off to see your kids’ doctor, your life is hell. You need the flexibility to do those things.”
If you can’t take the morning off to see your kids’ doctor, your life is hell.
While job-sharing, compressed workweeks, and telecommuting are a few of the more common flex practices, the concept of a gradual return to work for new moms is a more recent one. Under this arrangement, “Employees are able to come back part-time for a month or two, before going full-time again,” explains Jean Holbrook, director of product management for Lifeworks. Her company, in part, provides employers with a suite of integrated, work-life, employee assistance programs.
Though you might expect many moms to take advantage of these flex options, they usually don’t. Nearly 75 percent of today’s working women hold blue-collar jobs, so the fear of losing their position is too great. Unfortunately, says Benenson, those in the upper corporate ranks are the only ones taking advantage of family-friendly perks. “It’s important that benefits go to women up and down the ladder.”
The Bigger Picture
What’s equally disturbing is that the number of women who actually advance to senior and executive positions is still minute, compared to their male counterparts. In fact, just 12.5 percent of the corporate officers and 4.1 percent of all top earners in America today are women, according to a recent Working Mother article.
Some exemplary companies, however, are addressing this disparity. They provide training for female managers, mentoring programs, and formal compensation policies to reward those who help women advance. And, to guard against losing valuable female employees, smart companies even offer onsite (or nearby) childcare.
But there are even more innovative benefits out there when it comes to infants and kids. “It’s becoming more common for companies to have a lactation room for new mothers,” says Holbrook. Companies may also have a lactation expert provide counseling about such facilities, both before and after a woman re-enters the workplace.
During vacation or holidays, most try to keep their children occupied with activities. When plans fall through, employees have to take time off and provide supervision. “It’s a very serious business problem for employers,” Holbrook confirms, “keeping people at work and productive when their kids are on break.” Some companies now host their own onsite summer camp or holiday program, or contract with a local camp for the service.
To cover emergency situations, employers have started to introduce back-up care programs. Holbrook explains: “Employers determine in advance how many times a year they will pay for back-up care. [Our company] pays up to $100, ten times a year.”
Large employers offer various wellness benefits as part of a compensation package: in-house fitness clubs, discount memberships to the local gym, on-site flu-shots, yoga instruction, herbal massages, and weight-loss counseling. Concierge services are another extremely attractive perk for working moms. Professional “errand runners” handle everything from picking up theater tickets to having your car tuned up, according to Holbrook. “Women take care of about 80 percent of these logistical things,” she says, “and that’s why the whole convenience arena is so appealing to professional women.”
Smaller companies have to be more creative. While it may not be cost-effective to develop onsite child-care, firms can reach out to the local business community and negotiate lower rates or vouchers for daycare providers for their employees. They can match their employees’ 401k contribution up to a certain amount every fiscal quarter. And, for workers interested in tuition re-imbursement, “Small companies can agree to pay for one class per quarter or book expenses,” Dockter adds. “Anything helps.”