Motherhood and Apple Pie - what can the UK learn from the US about working families?

24 November 2011

As Thanksgiving is being celebrated by US families today, it is worth reflecting on a substantive survey published by the US Working Mother Research Institute recently, in conjunction with Ernst & Young, about “What Moms Choose”. As we know, invariably working mothers in the UK face similar issues to our sisters across the pond. So what are the key lessons British employers can learn from this US survey in order to retain working mothers and attract stay at home career-orientated mothers back into the workforce?

  1. Offer real career paths and development opportunities for working mums, as opposed to purely a means to collect a pay-cheque each month. 55% of career-orientated stay-at-home mums surveyed said they would prefer to be working; whilst 65% of career-oriented working mothers said they would recommend their employer as a great place to work, compared with only 52% of mums working for financial reasons. Career-orientated mums are twice as likely to have attained supervisor/managerial responsibilities. They also log nearly four more work hours each week on average than their pay cheque peers, which equates to roughly five additional weeks. This loyalty translates into measurable financial results for the employer.
  2. Flexibility: When asked to define what makes a good mother, 63% of respondents said being there when their children leave for school and come home at the end of the day was most important. Lack of flexibility, lack of part-time options and having to work more than 40 hours per week, were amongst the top factors which ultimately push career-orientated mothers out of the workforce. In my experience, mothers in the UK feel no different. Too often they take the view that they must be committed to career or family, but can’t practically achieve both. However, technological progress means that home working and out-of-office contact is ever more possible. Economic realities mean that part-time roles may be increasingly attractive to employers. UK employers on the whole seem to think that flexible working means part-time working and are open to this traditional model of flexible working. However, the results of this survey show that what women want more than anything is to work condensed hours so that they can be there for their children at the start and end of each day. Employers here need to embrace less traditional methods of flexible working, which ironically could mean that their employees work full time, but with an earlier start and finish time to the traditional 9 to 5 model.
  3. Pay: The US study highlighted the financial price women pay for having children. Women generally take a pay cut when they return to work after time-off to raise children and surprisingly the pay differential is more severe for the most educated qualified women – for example women MBAs see their pay drop 41% relative to male MBA earnings. In this day and age, such a result is both astounding and disappointing. Such a wide pay gap cannot be justified purely on the basis that the woman may be a year or so behind her male counterparts in terms of experience due to any period(s) of maternity leave she may have taken. UK as well as US employers who deliberately penalise mothers in this way, could find themselves liable to hefty discrimination claims.
  4. Role models & Mentors: Interestingly both the working and stay-at-home mums surveyed believed that being a good mum involves showing your children that women can succeed professionally and 59% of the career mums said their parents had prepared them to pursue a career. What UK employers can take from this is the value of programmes which encourage working mothers who are leaders in their organisations to mentor other mothers internally and visit schools in order to act as positive role models (to both female and male pupils alike). This could be done as part of their company’s corporate social responsibility programme.
  5. Managers should lead by example: Managers should not send or return e-mails at 11.30pm at night. This sends the message to their employees that it is never okay to be “off-duty.” Managers need to leave work on time occasionally and re-iterate the message through their actions and behaviour that having a healthy work-life balance is encouraged by their organisation.
  6. Finally “me time: The US study showed that working mothers worry they do not have sufficient time to take care of themselves. Some progressive Working Mother 100 Best Companies in the US are making a difference by allowing employees time to attend to personal wellness at work and providing on-site dentists, doctors, a grocery delivery service, gym, etc. Although this is more possible for large-scale employers and might be regarded as expendable by many employers in these constrained economic times, it is worth noting such benefits are said to reduce stress and lower company private healthcare costs.
The comprehensive data compiled by the U.S Working Mother Research Institute provides valuable lessons for employers on this side of the pond as much as in the US about how to retain and attract back into the workforce educated and talented women who happen to want children as well as a career. It is my hope for the future that such research will not only focus on what working mothers want, but what working parents want. Fathers play an equally pivotal role to mothers in terms of their children’s development and they want to have quality time with them too. The Government here has recognised that and has increased paternity leave and wants to adopt a system of shared parental leave from the earliest stages of pregnancy. Let’s hope that best employer awards in the future both here and in the States stop being gender specific and focus instead on which workplaces are best for working parents, rather than just working mothers.

The 2011 U.S Working Mothers Research Institute Report was based on responses from 3,751 women and can be found here:

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