How to Help Working Parents Succeed in Your Agency

From a very young age, I’ve wanted to be a mom. Not much has changed. I’ve gone from the little girl toting around her baby doll 24/7 to a 26-year-old that dotes over strangers’ infants in the grocery store and actually wants to own a mini-van. (True stories.)

Combine these personal dreams with the fact that I work for a company that I love, in a female-dominated office, and you’ll understand why I’ve taken a pretty keen interest in how employers and individuals can help working parents succeed.

Let’s take a quick look at the facts, as pulled from Sheryl Sandberg’s (@sherylsandberg) book Lean In.

  • The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a paid maternity leave policy; only about half of women receive pay.
  • 40% of employed mothers lack sick days and vacation leave, and about 50% are unable to take time off to care for a sick child.
  • 43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers, or off-ramping for a period of time.
  • Only 40% of women will return to fulltime jobs, after taking time out of the workforce; these women face dramatic pay decreases.
  • Childcare costs have risen 2x faster than the median income of families with kids.
  • The majority of men take one week or less off when their partners give birth.
  • Both men and women are penalized for prioritizing family, including pay cuts, lost promotions, etc.

The challenges are obvious—for both men and women—and true work/life balance is likely an illusion. However, with employer support and flexibility, and individual perseverance, I believe it’s entirely possible to derive true satisfaction from both work and family. While I don’t have all the answers, below are some lessons I’ve uncovered. 

Technology Enables Greater Flexibility

We no longer punch in at 8 a.m. and out at 5 p.m. Thanks to smartphones and other technologies, we can work from anywhere, at anytime—and we often do. Yet, most employers still mandate that we work the structured nine hours at our desks.

Working ParentIn the SXSW session, “How to Keep Working Parents In and Innovating,” Lisa Belkin (@lisabelkin), senior columnist at AOL/Huffington Post Media Group, explained it this way: “We tend to evaluate whether someone is working by whether they are there, but we’re supposed to be producing things/making things happen. That’s our job. There is a reason you are in your job, and your job is either getting done or it isn’t getting done. This requires a different type of management. It doesn’t matter whether you see someone or if their bottom is in a chair.”

Of course, this brings responsibility for the employee too, in terms of regularly checking in, actually producing results, successfully managing time and more. While it won’t work for every job or individual, flexible work schedules, telecommunicating and similar arrangements can make it easier to live fulfilling personal and professional lives. And, in the agency world, where much of the work we do is online, there are valid options to consider for employees.

Policies Must be Gender Neutral, and Not Child Specific

As Sandberg says in her book, “As women become more empowered at work, men must become more empowered at home.”

Generally speaking, men are granted even less time off than women for family reasons, even though they too may want more flexibility. This was a main point in professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s (@slaughteram) SXSW presentation, “Beyond Work/Life: Changing the Debate and Making Change.” To be truly equal, we need better choices for both men and women, so that individuals can make the best decisions for their families regardless of gender.

Policies too shouldn’t center on just childcare, but also on caring for other family members—like aging parents, sick spouses, etc. As Slaughter pointed out, “You can choose whether you want to have kids, but you can’t choose whether you have parents.” When considering your agencies policy, select one that isn’t discriminatory toward the type of care being given, or the person giving it.

It All Comes Down to Culture

Helping employed caregivers thrive centers a lot on the culture of work environments.

For example, it’s great to have flexible policies in place, but if the culture punishes those who take advantage of them (think compensation, raises and general impressions of competency, commitment and capabilities), they are worthless. Often times, it’s the underlying approval or disapproval of colleagues that make or break a policy.

In addition, in the words of Sandberg, “Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about.” The happier someone is when it comes to his or her job, the less likely they are to leave. Give them a reason to stay by surrounding them with opportunities, caring and passionate colleagues, and insightful and interesting work.

How Does Your Agency Support Caregivers?

There are no easy answers; however, having the conversation and sharing best practices is a start. That said, I’d love to hear your experiences, policies and thoughts on this topic.

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