Working parents essentially juggle between two full-time jobs—work and parenting, but longstanding gender norms and traditional mindsets mean that mothers typically face more challenges than fathers. Here, we dive into the struggles that mothers face at work and how we can all provide them with the support they deserve.
Imagine working a job that pays nothing yet requires 24/7 commitment—that’s basically parenthood in a nutshell. Indeed, the 2021 Marriage and Parenthood survey proves that being a parent is equivalent to a full-time job, with fathers spending an average of 33.4 hours a week on childcare duties while the number goes up to 50 hours for mothers.
Guess what, that means working parents are balancing two jobs at the same time! Despite parenthood being an uphill battle for both parties, longstanding gender norms dictate that mothers hold greater responsibilities in domestic and childcare relations, making it all the more difficult for mothers who decide to go back to work even though they’re statistically shown to make excellent hires.
While having to bear the brunt of parenting at home, mothers also face their fair share of problems in the workplace, including unfair wage gaps and uncertainty in career progression. As more mothers are choosing to re-enter the workforce, these issues become more pressing as they not only take a toll on mothers’ mental and physical wellbeing, they also threaten the productivity of a growing population of employees. That said, we’ll take you through some challenges that mothers face on the job, and offer some steps employers and co-workers can take to overcome them.
Working mothers are expected to stop being mothers at work
As much as parents sometimes wish it to be true, parenthood doesn’t come with a pause button. Even at work, the responsibilities of a parent never ends. Yet, many mothers are expected to bounce back immediately after maternity leave and the physical toll of childbirth, as if it was but a long vacation. This is further exacerbated as the world shifts beyond the Covid-19 pandemic and physical work settings become the norm once again, leaving mums away from their children for hours on end.
Mothers with newborns and infants experience a unique set of struggles if they choose to breastfeed their babies. While mothers in Singapore are only entitled to four months of maternity break, the ideal breastfeeding period, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, is between six months to two years. As such, many mothers desire to continue doing so by expressing their breastmilk after returning to work.
However, many companies still fall short in providing safe facilities for nursing mothers to express milk during office hours, making an already challenging task for many all the more difficult. Even now, we still hear of some women being forced to pump in unhygienic environments such as public toilets, or pressured to reduce the number of pumping sessions required throughout the day.
Due to the stress and inconvenience of it all, as well as the physical discomfort that comes with holding off pumps, almost half of mothers who return to work choose to stop breastfeeding altogether. On a business front, all of these worries affect mothers’ abilities to focus and perform to their fullest potential at work.
Working mothers are unfairly compensated and discriminated against
Despite their capabilities, there are many employers that still refuse to acknowledge mothers as employees worth investing in. Sometimes referred to as the “childcare penalty”, mothers often face significant pay cuts when returning to the same job, or are forced to take on lower paid jobs notwithstanding their qualifications. The sad reality is that on average, women are paid 6% less than men, and this figure only widens when they bear children. In fact, in some organisations and communities, employed mothers are even paid lesser than their other female counterparts with no children in the same position.
What’s more, uncertainty in job security starts even before childbirth. With more women in Singapore becoming mothers later in life—on average above 30 years old—chances are they will welcome their first child into the world at the same time their careers are taking off or reaching its peak. Thus, should they wish to maintain their career standing, many mothers-to-be may feel the need to delay announcing their pregnancies lest they be overlooked for promotions, excluded from important projects, or worse, dismissed from the company entirely.
Without fair compensation and support from employers, what is meant to be a beautiful season of life can instead create a lot of tension and discourage mothers from stepping back into the job market, which is ultimately an organisational loss.
Working mothers face judgement, and isolation
It’s absurd to think that working mothers have to decide between their children and careers, especially when kids fall sick or babysitting plans fall through—a lose-lose situation no matter their choice. Choosing the former is quickly followed by guilt for inconveniencing everyone in the team and fear of being penalised for putting family first. Choosing the latter is accompanied by guilt for not giving their children enough attention and fear of being seen as a bad or distant mother.
Battling between making ends meet and providing the best for their children but with nowhere to turn to, many working mothers simply accept their fates and suffer in silence. To that end, how can employers expect mothers to continuously deliver when they are undermined and disadvantaged every step of the way?
What can employers and co-workers do?
Extending a helping hand to working mothers is not a big feat, all it takes is a little empathy and kindness. If you work with mothers or mothers-to-be, here are some ways you can support them and build a more inclusive workplace
1. Be flexible where possible
What mothers need to thrive at work often boils down to one factor: flexibility. This usually comes in the form of adaptable work arrangements such as flexible hours and the option to work-from-home.
If your company can afford such adjustments, then it’s definitely worth incorporating. You may think that flexible work hours and working from home equates to lower output, but in reality, it’s quite the contrary. In fact, mothers who are allowed flexible work arrangements reported better work-life balance and confidence to take on more demanding roles.
The benefits of flexible work arrangements can also be seen in times of family emergencies, which are inevitable with young children. When the need arises, working mums won’t feel guilty about stepping away from work momentarily, and co-workers will not be left to take on the burden of their absence during regular office hours.
2. Give credit where credit is due
Pay working mothers based on their merits as you would any other employee. When employees are well-compensated, they’re motivated to keep improving, benefitting all parties involved.
Apart from ensuring that employees are paid fairly, credit can even come in the form of small gestures such as acknowledging good work and giving hardworking mothers their time in the spotlight as well. For one, new mums who are just returning to work often face difficulties in readjusting to the job environment. As such, a little encouragement can go a long way in boosting their confidence in this transitional period.
3. Create a supportive workplace culture
Not only can employers provide a conducive physical space for mothers at work—a clean and private nursing area for instance—it’s important that working mothers, and all employees, feel safe to express any concerns and unhappiness.
The wellbeing of employees is crucial to keeping the corporate boat afloat; for effective solutions to be reached, what’s most important is to listen to their needs. Mothers know what mothers need best, so having regular check-ins or feedback portals are exceptional ways to make them feel heard, valued, and supported.
When employers show that they value working mothers, the sentiment naturally trickles down to the rest of the team, creating a more positive work environment. Ensuring these requirements are met means that all employees, parents or not, can have the peace of mind to focus on performing well at work.
We are beginning to see a shift in perceived gender roles as more parents, especially younger ones, start to recognise both mothers and fathers as caregivers of equal importance, but more can be done to ease the undeniable burdens that working mothers face. Whether you’re a seasoned mum, new mum, or mum-to-be, here’s a reminder that you’re doing an amazing job! As for the rest of us, let’s continue to be an advocate for working mothers, and push for workplace equity for all.
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