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I was at the Working Mother Work Life Congress this week, which showcases the 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers and also provides workshops and discussions for people who work in the field unfortunately called “work life.” Companies were asking: What should we do to retain new moms, and to keep them engaged and energized?

I’m throwing it out there to you, because the numbers speak to a huge need to keep us. Sharon Klun from Accenture noted that the touch point for women is three for five months after they return from maternity leave. That’s when women are often in crisis, thinking, maybe I should just quit. So the question is, what should companies do? The companies at the Working Mother Conference have gone farther in figuring out this issue than most American employers. As someone who is self-employed, I often wish I worked at a large company that offers great benefits. But because most women work in small businesses, we can all learn from the best practices of large firms.

Keeping women at work is big money for these firms. As Joanne McDonough from Price Waterhouse Coopers explained, when they ran the numbers, losing new mothers was a cost. So they set about wanting to devise programs that increase the quality of the maternity transition, increase parents' productivity, and increase knowledge and education of those who manage moms. They wanted to challenge assumptions of what happens to work when you become a mom.

I’d like to clear up one myth: it’s not that new mothers don’t want to work. A recent survey of 1,200 new mothers found that 20% actually reported being more ambitious after having their baby. A survey of 2,775 American employees conducted by WFD Consulting found throughout the career life cycle, women are more engaged at work than men. Engagement is lower for women in their thirties than it is for women in their twenties (who are the most ambitious and highly career-engaged group in this study), probably because work and family demands converge at this time. Employee resilience, defined as the ability to adapt to change, is higher for women than men. However, in their thirties, exempt men and women each become less resilient, again, I think, because it’s hard to manage work and family. Women get much more resilient as they head into their forties and fifties, while men’s resilience drops. This is crucial because resilience is highly correlated with schedule control and workplace relationships, which predict turnover.

The discussions I participated in really tried to think about new ways companies can engage moms of young kids. Now, there are meta, public policy changes that would probably help more than anything else. For example, paid sick leave would be huge. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) predicted Congress would pass paid sick leave in 2009. The Healthy Families Act requires seven days of paid sick leave annually for companies with 15 or more employees. Well, it’s November and that hasn’t happened so I’m not holding my breath.

I was left with the takeaway that absent public policy changes (paid sick leave, affordable quality childcare) the best solution companies can help with is to change paradigms of working. This means changing schedules and expectations that being in the office is the only way to be effective.

But companies are taking crucial steps to support new moms, often by providing information and resource and referral services, or by modeling behavior that works.

I liked this model, at accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, because not only does it provide new mothers with support, it connects them to more senior women executives who can offer career coaching and sponsorship. Young and new moms connect with experienced moms at Price Waterhouse Coopers to help them figure out how to do it- they call it Mentor Moms. They started with a pilot program in NY and LA, and started doing it “by hand.” As women requested maternity leave, they’d get a form to fill out, noting their line of service and their interest, and PWC would match the expecting mom up with a “mentor.”

In the second year they built a database and microsite around it and got to about 350 mentors in the US. All mentors have a profile with photos of their kids, and mentees can select who they want, and email a request. There is a guidebook for mentors, some icebreakers, and some guides on how to build the relationship. PWC has found that mentors want training, and they want to learn how to be coaches to help their mentees figure out the tough stuff! Not just how do you travel and manage workload, but how do you leave your baby? How do you deal with mommy guilt?

The mentor is responsible for an 18-month commitment, and they are expected to meet once a month. The relationship starts during the second trimester. And when the mentee is out on leave, she can choose what kind of support she wants while she is out on leave.

One discussion point arose- what if a mentee chooses a different path than her mentor? What if a mentee doesn’t want to make partner at the firm, but wants a career track that gives her more time with family, or to pursue other interests? Is her mentor going to try to steer her another way? Joanne McDonough and Jennifer Demirdjian, who oversee the Mentoring program noted they work with mentors to stress: you have to understand that a woman might choose a different path than you, and that’s ok!

The best part is that mentoring can lead to sponsorship. For example, a Director who helped begin the mentoring program mentored a woman who was the single mom of a young baby. This woman was a high performer but she was placed on a client more than two hours from her home. She was in danger of quitting. So her mentor mom advocated to get the mom put onto a new client that wasn’t two hours away.

Another company in the room, Working Mother Media, has identified employees who are “expert moms” and will make themselves known throughout the company as available for counsel on topics. For example if an employee asks….”my kid has ADHD and I need advice and I’m sick of Googling for information,” the expert mom will step forward.

Lots of firms have informal brown bag lunches for new parents, new parents networks, and online information sources. I’m curious if you have used these, and if they help fix the essential challenges of being a working mother? Or, do we need public policy and meta change to really make a difference?

Perhaps the most powerful idea around mentorship came from an idea to shift the mentorship model: What if more experienced mothers mentored new Dads?


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