US workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. “The Great Resignation” hit its peak in September 2021, when 4.4 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs.
At the center of the mass exit are working mothers with young children.
Companies that employ large numbers of women now face an acute labor shortage, driven in part by a pandemic and a shrinking pool of working moms.
But why are more working mothers leaving the labor force?
And what can employers do to stop the exodus and attract, hire and retain them? We’ve partnered with the team at Après to dive deeper into who working mothers are and what they need from employers.
A growing labor shortage
With a quarter of the workforce dropping out, business owners and hiring managers are scrambling to find replacements. According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are feeling most of the crunch. NFIB data showed that by the end of 2020, nearly one-third (32%) of SMBs had positions they couldn’t fill.
Of course, the labor crisis only grew in 2021. The NFIB’s September Small Business Economic Trends report found that a record 51% of SMB owners had unfilled job slots. Business owners in an NFIB-sponsored campaign called In Their Own Words, described their chief struggles with the labor shortage:
- Finding qualified workers
- Competing against bigger firms for talent
- Scaling back customer services
- Being forced out of business
A Gallup report concludes that investing in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for working mothers can raise financial returns for employers. But the great employee exodus could derail a company’s DEI agenda.
The state of working moms
The state of working moms is shifting. Where they’ve thrived, they’ve also faced setbacks.
Let’s take a closer look at what the data says about the state of working moms pre-pandemic and today.
Labor force statistics
Mothers make up a sizable segment of the labor force that employers can’t afford to overlook. According to 2018 US Census Bureau figures, mothers made up 32% of all employed women. In the same year, two-thirds of the 23.5 million women with children under 18 were full-time workers.
The same pre-pandemic Census Bureau figures provide more insight into working moms’ demographics and their value in the labor market:
- 76% of those with underage children are between 30 and 49 years old.
- 44% of those aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s or higher level degree, compared with 38% of all workers in the same age bracket.
- New mothers with higher levels of education were more likely to be employed.
- Age and education may account for women with children having higher median annual salaries than other working women combined ($44,190 vs. $42,295).
In 2019, labor force participation — the percent of the population that is working or actively job seeking — was 72%for working moms with children under 18. The rate for single, divorced and widowed mothers was even higher, at 77.6%. However, by 2020, the participation rate for women with children under 18 dropped to 71.2%.
Attitudes about work
Working mothers historically were slightly more invested in career advancement than women overall. A 2019 study of working mothers versus all other women found that:
- 75% of working moms wanted a promotion, versus 71% of all working women.
- 68% versus 66% believed in opportunities for advancement.
- 58% versus 54% wanted to be managers.
- 35% versus 32% hoped to rise up to top manager.
Enter COVID-19 a year later and as many as one-in-three working moms with young children said they’re considering downscaling their careers or leaving the workforce entirely, according to the 2020 Women in the Workplace report.
A growing number of employed mothers in the Workplace report appear to be aligning themselves with nonworking mothers in the pre-pandemic days. A 2019 Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of nonworking women with underage children preferred to stay home, while more than 57% of employed mothers with minor children preferred working outside the home.
However, Gallup found that mothers without young children preferred to work outside the home, regardless of their employment status.
“Child care is one of the biggest cost drains on American families, in some cases costing more than a college tuition annually. Companies that can contribute to child care costs for employees, including stipends, back-up child care benefits, and time off can ease this source of major stress for working mothers.”
— Stacey Delo, CEO, Après
Industries with the largest number of working moms are educational services, healthcare and social assistance. Census Bureau data from 2018 shows that these industries employ 40% of all mothers in the labor force.
The next five industry clusters with the most working moms are:
- Professional, scientific, management, administrative, waste management services – 11%
- Retail trade – 9%
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services – 8%
- Finance, insurance, real estate and rental services – 8%
- Manufacturing – 6%
One of the industries with the worst track record for hiring and retaining women, especially Black women, is the technology industry.
Despite the relatively low percentage of working mothers in manufacturing, the Women in Manufacturing® Association (WIM) held the first Moms in MFG event virtually on August 12, 2021.
Best employers for working moms
Parenting magazine’s list of the top 10 best companies in 2021 for working moms includes some of the nation’s largest and most recognizable enterprises. The giant job board Monster released an equally notable list of top 100 picks for working moms.
Staff ratings of employers’ culture, vision, values, benefits, perquisites (perks) and other attributes decide the winners. Companies earned high marks for providing working mothers with:
- Full benefits for part-time schedules
- Training for career advancement
- Flexible work schedules
- Generous leave and caretaker policies
- Telecommuting and work-at-home options
- Career counseling and life coaching programs
Return-to-work programs for mothers out on leave.
“At Après we’re seeing a strong demand for opportunities with training, which allows employers to tap into a talent pool that is rich with transferable skills such as communication, empathy, organization and planning, project management and more.”
— Stacey Delo, CEO, Après
Key takeaways from “best company” lists:
- Winning companies have employee-friendly cultures for working moms.
- Career advancement training, flexible work schedules and generous leave policies are highly rated benefits among working moms.
- Return-to-work programs are a low-cost way of helping moms who are out on leave to keep their skills updated and careers on track.
“The same benefits that retain women talent offer an opportunity to attract the best talent,” explains Delo. “It’s critical, though, for employers to do more than simply list these benefits and perks on a website. They must train and empower their managers to embrace these programs and use them themselves to model that it is OK to take advantage of a flexible work schedule or generous paid leave. Benefits like these don’t work in an environment where people are afraid to use them for fear of being penalized.”
Racial and ethnic differences
Labor-force participation varies by race and ethnicity among working moms. Although the reasons are complicated, the Census Bureau breaks down the racial and ethnic differences among mothers who are: 1. working, 2. out on leave, 3. unemployed, 4. nonparticipants in the labor market and 5. living with or without at least one other working adult in the household.
The figures below show racial and ethnic differences for 2020 and 2021 among moms living with at least one other working adult:
White, non-Hispanic moms
Actively working: 72.8% (2020) and 70% (2021)
Out on leave: 2.3% (2020) and 2.3% (2021)
Unemployed: 1.6% (2020) and 2.8% (2021)
Non-participating: 23.4% (2020) and 25% (2021)
Black, non-Hispanic moms
Actively working: 75.4% (2020) and 69.7% (2021)
Out on leave: 2.3% (2020) and 3.2% (2021)
Unemployed: 4.7% (2020) and 4.7% (2021)
Non-participating: 17.6% (2020) and 22.4% (2021)
Asian, non-Hispanic moms
Actively working: 61.8%(2020) and 57.9% (2021)
Out on leave: 1.5% (2020) and 1.8% (2021)
Unemployed: 1.5% (2020) and 4.1% (2021)
Non-participating: 35.2% (2020) and 36.1% (2021)
Actively working: 59.3% (2020) and 55.4% (2021)
Out on leave: 1.2% (2020) and 3.2% (2021)
Unemployed: 3.6% (2020) and 4.7% (2021)
Non-participating: 36% (2020) and 38.6% (2021)
Key takeaways from the Census Bureau figures:
- Black working moms had the highest labor force participation rate in 2020, at 75.4%, but slipped 0.3% below that of White working moms in 2021.
- The moms had similar leave rates for both years overall, which could indicate that racial and ethnic groups use leave benefits equally.
- Unemployment rates were lowest for white and Asian mothers in 2020, but rates for the latter group increased to the level of Black and Hispanic mothers in 2021.
- The number of workforce nonparticipants rose slightly for White, Asian and Hispanic mothers between 2020 and 2021, but rose significantly higher for Black mothers.
Bias and discrimination
Fifty years ago, the US Supreme Court declared discrimination against pregnant women illegal. Yet, the Motherhood Penalty continues. Working moms are routinely passed over for promotions, demoted, given low-level assignments or punished for requesting flexible work hours to meet family responsibilities.
The Motherhood Penalty also robs working moms of their earnings. Like women in general, moms receive 70 cents for every dollar that men doing the same or similar work receive. Despite Congress’s passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Equal Pay Act and Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, mothers still face discrimination in the workplace. Sexual harassment continues to plague women in all industries and at all levels of the workplace.
Gender bias is another ongoing problem for working women, including mothers. A new survey shows that one-in-three women experience gender bias in the technology industry.
Though commonplace, bias and discrimination remain illegal:
- The US Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces anti-discrimination laws and actively seeks to prosecute violators.
Laws in some states and localities bar employers from asking job candidates about their pay history because the practice tends to keep women’s pay grades below men’s.
Curbing the “Great Resignation” for moms
Employers can help keep more working moms onboard by creating and maintaining a work culture that champions new moms. Women with new children are more likely to stay in, or return to, a work environment that values them and their parental role.
Gallup analytics show that 54% of working mothers with young children prefer to stay at home, but more would remain in the workplace if it would accommodate their needs as parents.
Besides the benefits and programs that the companies considered the best provide working moms, companies can offer special accommodations exclusively for working moms, like private lactation areas, emergency babysitting services and phased return-to-work programs for mothers on leave.
Companies must make sure DEI applies to all working mothers, not just highly paid employees or those on a promotional career track. Many working moms are in frontline, low-paying jobs in the retail and service sectors and have a greater need for flexible schedules, paid leave and support services.
A better future for working moms
COVID-19 may have put working moms in the spotlight, but many of the challenges they face aren’t new.
For example, Pew Research Center studies found that working moms were more likely than dads to say they had more than their share of childcare responsibilities and difficulty handling those duties while working from home during the pandemic. But working moms have struggled with household-chore imbalances, inflexible work schedules, unpaid leave and other roadblocks for decades.
In order for the future to be genuinely different from the past, employers must offer working moms incentives to remain in the workplace and thrive, without sacrificing their families and careers.
“The push and pull between career and parenting is not new, but the opportunity the pandemic created to challenge traditional work structures that have historically penalized working mothers is,” says Delo.
“Now is the time to do the work to create new models that allow working mothers to contribute at work and still be the mother they want to be. Companies that understand and embrace this will be better off when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent.”