Research & Thought Leadership

How organizations can support working mothers

Dr. Carina Paine Schofield

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Balancing professional and parental identities can be challenging. This has particularly been the case over the past year, as a pandemic has turned family life on its head. During this time, working parents have been navigating school closures, remote working, and social isolation. As the boundaries between work and home life have become even more blurred, professional and parental identities have also blurred. With working parents often wearing multiple hats at the same time – worker, parent, and teacher!

Numerous surveys of working parents during the pandemic show that a disproportionate share of the burden is falling on women. And the impact of the pandemic has already been seen in the number of women leaving the labor market. There are fears that COVID-19 is reversing not only progress towards gender equality but also stunting economic growth. As we come out of lockdown, and the workplace becomes whatever the new normal is, it is vital that working mothers’ voices be heard – by managers, leaders, and organizations. We need working mothers to be retained, to help them feel supported and enable them to contribute productively. It is not just about the practicalities of juggling work and home life, but also about supporting the psychological shift too – helping to balance professional and parental identities.

At Hult International Business School, we are conducting the ‘Working Parents Shift’ research project. This project explores the psychological challenges and experiences when making the shift from worker to working parent. The project aims to provide recommendations and practical changes that organizations and individuals can make that go beyond flexible working practices, to ensure that working parents feel supported and organizations retain motivated employees.

Our Findings

Over the last year, we invited working mothers to share their stories and provide examples around the reality of how they are struggling to manage their maternal and professional identities whilst working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 200 working mums responded. Some of the key findings from their stories are provided below:

  • The stories were dominated by working mums wanting to have a professional identity and the importance of being “more than just mum”. Mothers described how having a work identity made them feel fulfilled and provided them with a purpose.

  • Several mums talked about either needing or wanting, to hide their parental identity when working. They did not want people at work to see them as a mother and so often put on a front.

  • Most of the mothers described the importance, and challenge, of trying to balance identities. And when things do not work in terms of balancing, mothers described feeling conflicted and guilty, and at times like a failure.

All mums agreed that the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges they face.

Recommendations for Organizations and Individuals

Working parents were also asked what support has helped and would help them achieve a better balance.

We have combined their suggestions with our other findings to create the following recommendations to help juggle work and home, both mentally and practically:

  • Create support networks for sharing – parents described the value of being able to share their experiences with someone in the same industry or organization (not just their friends). Providing internal support networks and mentoring or buddying programs will help with this - parents can share stories, discuss any challenges (psychological or practical) and support each other.

  • Individual plans - every family is different, and family life is constantly shifting. As a working parent, find out what works for you and your family – find your own balance. For organizations, give managers the autonomy to take an individual approach and to work alongside the parents in their team to find creative solutions that meet both individual and business needs.

  • Organizations and individuals need to work together – there is a need for flexibility on both sides. Organizations need to provide the ability and opportunity to communicate and create working solutions together with working parents. Individuals need to be prepared and willing to adapt to changing family and work needs.

What Next?

As children return to school and mothers to the workplace, what will be the continued normal going forwards? Will there be any benefits of maternal identity being shared at work during this time? It is important to continue to give working mothers a voice, and to conduct further research in this area to ensure that working mothers feel supported and organizations retain motivated employees.

This study is part of a larger project looking at how working parents transition and balance their professional and parental identities. You can take part in the research here.

Dr. Carina Paine Schofield is a Senior Research Fellow at Hult International Business School. Her research interests are in the areas of psychology (social, developmental, organizational, educational, and forensic) and technology (AI and the effective use of technology in enhancing learning).

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