By engaging working mothers in the workplace effectively, we can help retain top talent in our industry and create a better tomorrow for our daughters.
Recently, I listened to “The Secret to Great Teams” episode on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast. In the episode, they cited a study that shows just how beneficial it is to have women on successful teams. Generally speaking, women tend to bring more social perceptiveness to the table which helps bring awareness to each individual’s needs within a team. That’s not to say that men cannot do this, just that it is a more prevalent characteristic of women.
With the industry needing to attract and retain diverse talent now more than ever, this ability women bring to the table needs to be nurtured within the industry. Approximately 86 percent of women do choose to become mothers and the struggles associated with being a working mother are not lost on many. While I’ve seen more awareness of this in the industry, I’ve also seen a disproportionate number of women leave the industry. Some of this is inevitable and we should support women making the best choice for themselves, however, there is plenty we can do as employers to retain this talent. While this list is not all-encompassing, I’ve encountered some dos and don’ts that can help industry leaders retain working mothers:
- Do treat each woman as an individual. It is easy to fall into assuming that people with similar backgrounds may have similar challenges, but this is not necessarily true. As is typical for any other employee, recognize her unique perspective and what she can bring to the table. Is she great at influencing and engaging younger employees? Does she really lean into the technical aspects? As employers, it is important to take what our employees individually bring to the table and use that to help our people and business grow.
- Don’t assume the same 23rd chromosome between two individuals means an instant connection. This goes back to treating people as individuals – just because someone is a woman, that does not mean they want to take on the task of mentoring another woman. It is not everyone’s strength and that is OK. This should be a direct conversation with your tenured employee to see if that is what she wants. If this is something your tenured employee wants to engage in, that can be immensely beneficial, but that should not be assumed based on gender.
- Do advocate for her. Believe in her and speak up when she is not being treated fairly. While it is usually considered “good” to separate your home life from your work life, the leaders I’ve had that have actively tried to create a workplace where their own daughter can succeed have been the ones that have engaged me the most. While most women know sexism still exists in the world today, they usually do appreciate working with others that do not tolerate it.
- Don’t allow for negative comments in the workplace related to her being a mother. While this may seem like it goes without saying, it is very easy to brush off these negative comments as meaningless, especially when they come from a tenured employee. If you want to foster a culture that is inclusive of working mothers, it is important to publicly correct those comments.
- Do offer flexibility. The pandemic offered more flexibility than ever before. I’m immensely thankful for it. The flexibility of occasionally eliminating a commute or maybe having a shorter day has helped me see an ability to engage as both a mother and an engineer. I don’t want to miss out on my kids’ school activities and I shouldn’t have to choose between having a career and attending said activities. My appreciation for the flexibility granted to me was reciprocated to leadership by me engaging more deeply in my work when I wanted to. Sometimes that was during weekend nap times and sometimes that was after bedtime, but I got my work done because the flexibility I was granted made me feel appreciated.
- Don’t assume her home life is the cause of her unhappiness. As employers, we should focus on what we can do to help our employees succeed. While struggles at work are inevitable when you have more humans to juggle at home, employers need to engage in providing resources to help employees succeed. For some, that may be regularly scheduling time off and for others it may be giving more flexibility or decreased working hours. Offer solutions.
- Don’t start off conversations by saying, “We do [blank] really well here at our engineering firm.” This is a great way to shut down constructive feedback and it’s likely you’re not doing as great of a job as you think. I’ve seen many firm leaders say something along this line while pointing to having one or two women maximum in leadership positions within a firm. Recognize there is always room to improve.
- Do encourage her. This may be the most important “do.” Being a mom is a lot like being a project manager with a difficult client. She is constantly working to anticipate problems at home, plan for success, coordinate activities, and provide solutions in the best interest of some little clients with short tempers. This skill set can be immensely valuable in our industry if we let working moms know how much we appreciate what they bring to the table and encourage them.
While this list is not all-encompassing, it is a good starting point for creating a culture in which mothers can more easily succeed. While some women do find success, it does not need to be nearly as difficult as it is today. Our industry has come a long way, but we still have much to improve upon. By engaging working mothers in the workplace effectively, we can help retain top talent in our industry and create a better tomorrow for our daughters.
Rachel Wilde, PE is a structural engineer at Walter P Moore. Contact her at email@example.com.