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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Writer, Culture Amp

Gone are the days when women were a small slice of the workforce. According to Pew Research Center, women now outnumber men in the U.S. college-educated labor force.

That’s inspired plenty of conversations about what women want at work. You’ve probably heard them before: Women want flexible schedules to balance the demands of their families. They want adequate, paid maternity leave. They want comfortable, designated spaces to pump or breastfeed. They want access to affordable childcare.

However, there’s an important distinction that rarely gets made: It’s not necessarily women who want those things from their employers – it’s mothers.

Supporting working moms is an admirable and worthwhile goal for organizations. But when companies focus specifically on creating inclusive work environments for mothers, they run the risk of being exclusive or potentially even discriminatory to employees who are childless.

It’s more common than you might think. In one survey, 72% of respondents said they noticed child-free workers were treated unfairly at work simply because they didn’t have children. And when that happens, organizations haven’t fostered inclusivity – they’ve fostered bias.

5 strategies to create an inclusive workplace for all women

What can employers do to ensure women, regardless of their parental status, feel supported at work? Reducing or eliminating benefits for working moms might seem like the easiest way to even the scales. People can’t feel slighted for not receiving certain perks if nobody gets them, right?

But that approach is bound to backfire. The argument here isn’t that working parents don’t need your support – it’s that your other employees need support, too.

The solution is all about addition rather than subtraction. So, what do you need to think about adding? Here are five strategies to help employers foster an inclusive work environment for women (and not just mothers).

1. Plan reasonable parental leave coverage

Nearly all of the chatter about parental leave focuses on the new parents. A new mother needs ample time to recover and bond with her new child without worrying about her work obligations. It’s a crucial cause and one that most women happily support regardless of their own family status.

But when you think about parental leave, you can’t only think about the employees taking time off. You also need to think about the employees who remain, as they’re typically expected to pick up the slack when a colleague takes leave. That’s especially true among women, who are more likely than men to be asked to take on additional tasks and are also more likely to say “yes” to doing so.

“I was singled out as the person who would take over the job of the woman going on maternity leave,” says Cynthia, a childless woman, referring to a past employment experience. “Over the span of three years, I filled in and did the job of three separate women who went out on maternity leave. For months, I did their job while doing my own full-time job.”

Research shows that workers don’t resent their team members for taking leave – they understand and encourage it. However, they will resent employers who expect them to shoulder additional responsibilities without any acknowledgment or consideration.

If and when an employee’s leave is approaching, work closely with the team to identify the best solutions to manage the workload during that time. Maybe you’ll hire a temporary position to backfill that role. Or perhaps you’ll divide the responsibilities among existing employees while also providing a pay increase. This ensures coverage without expecting your other employees to do additional unpaid labor without complaint.

2. Offer flexibility without judgment

The desire for flexibility is not unique to working moms – it’s ubiquitous. According to McKinsey, men and women both see flexibility as a top three employee benefit.

But when it comes to making the most of that flexibility, working parents have the advantage. 81% of employees strongly agree or agree that their employers consider child-related absences more important than the absences of child-free employees.

Taking a long lunch to run a child to a dentist appointment or cutting out early for a soccer game feel like worthy justifications for missing work. But the reality is that everyone has lives and obligations outside of their career.

What about employees who actively volunteer? Or have an appointment for a crucial home repair? Or are helping a neighbor? Or are tending to a sick or aging pet? Those are equally respectable responsibilities that warrant understanding and flexibility from organizations.

Additionally, employers need to bear in mind that parenting isn’t the only way that women experience the demands of being a caregiver. Women employees might be caring for an aging parent or an ill sibling, for example. Upwards of 75% of all unpaid family caregivers are female, and women spend as much as 50% more time providing care than men.

Raising children is certainly an admissible reason for needing flexibility, but it’s not the only one. And when employers choose to offer employees control and autonomy, they shouldn’t require explanations and justifications from employees who take advantage. Trust them to take the time they need, regardless of the reason.

That said, it’s helpful for managers and other company leaders to share when they’re taking time off – whether it’s for a child’s piano recital or to take their car to the repair shop. This transparency normalizes taking advantage of flexibility for various reasons and gives employees a sense of psychological safety that they can do the same without judgment.

3. Consider other relevant benefits

An alarming 87% of employees strongly agree or agree that working parents have more benefits than childless employees. And when it comes to women in particular, it’s worth remembering that childbirth isn’t the only radical physical change or disruption a woman endures.

That’s why some employers are exploring other perks and benefits related to a woman’s health and wellbeing, including:

  • Menstrual leave: Providing time off when a woman is menstruating so she doesn’t have to dip into her sick leave or other PTO
  • Menopause benefits: Offering a variety of benefits like improved health plans or accommodations to make the workplace more comfortable

These types of offerings haven’t gained major steam quite yet, especially with the persistent taboo that surrounds addressing these subjects at work. But they’re worth exploring to help all women employees feel seen, understood, and validated.

4. Prioritize fair and balanced workloads

The motherhood penalty is a real thing – women do have a tougher time climbing the ladder and achieving pay increases once they become mothers.

But childless women face a different type of penalty at work: the brazen assumption that they have endless time, energy, and attention for their work simply because they don’t have children. They’re often saddled with additional duties, last-minute emergencies, larger amounts of travel, and undesirable tasks. Consider these statistics:

  • 69% of child-free workers said they had to work overtime at least once because they didn’t have children
  • 70% of child-free workers were given a greater workload at least once because they didn’t have children
  • 74% of employees say child-free workers are expected to work overtime more frequently than their coworkers who have children
  • 74% of employers and coworkers assume that child-free people are more readily available because they don’t have children

While it might sound extreme, piling work on employees simply because they aren’t parents is a type of childless discrimination at work. As Shȃn, a childless woman in the workforce, explains, “I fully support more support for working moms. Fully, I cannot stress this enough. But I also support not unburdening any employee at the expense of overburdening others.”

5. Be mindful of language

Here’s one more change that benefits everybody: Stop talking about the needs of working mothers and start talking about the needs of working parents.

Placing all of the emphasis exclusively on motherhood reinforces the age-old perception that the majority of child-rearing should fall to the woman. As Joana, another childless woman in the workforce puts it, “Think about it from the point of view of life stage, not gender.”

Additionally, shifting the language away from “working mother” helps prevent all working women from getting lumped in with that group. That matters when women in the workforce have a long history of inequality and other barriers that are entirely separate from motherhood.

Less focus on prescriptive labels and more focus on people

Admittedly, this is a sensitive topic, as it can easily become yet another situation that pits women against each other: the plight of the working mother vs. the plight of the childless woman.

Dig deeper, and you’ll realize there’s no battle to be won here. Ultimately, everybody benefits when all employees – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, or family status – feel adequately supported and valued at work.

However, supporting working mothers can’t come at the expense or detriment of childless women. That only repeats a cycle that’s more than due for disruption: expecting women to be the ones to silently shoulder the burden, maintain the peace, and keep the wheels in motion.

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