What mothers want: What women say about how they can be best supported in the workplace

Woman at work in an office

Discrimination can begin before a woman even steps foot in the office. This is how you can ensure that all women are supported in the most effective way possible

When thinking about mothers in the workplace, ‘flexible working’ comes up constantly; it seems, too, that the options for and benefits of flexible working have been under discussion for some time. But is this enough? Is this discussion working and is it working well enough? For one thing, there are a great many ways of flexible working: working part-time, sharing your job, condensed hours, working from home, flexible start/end times, annualised hours…

This point is crucial – what will work for one employee and their family could easily be of no help to another. At a very basic level, it’s important that employers practise flexible working as flexibly as possible – this means line managers and senior leaders understanding all of the different working options, and being willing to work with their employers to create individualised working arrangements.

And as one Mumsnet user points out, don’t stop there: “Discuss changes annually, like a review. On-site childcare is useless once they start school but at that point a three-day-a-week role might be better done part-time over five days, so you get to do some school drop off/pick ups.”

Working mother picking up her child from nursery

At Mumsnet, we’ve looked into the issue of what parents want in great detail over the years, with many surveys and thousands of discussions. Here’s a potted version of what our users have told us that they want their employers to do.

Look into what happens once employees are working flexibly. Keep an eye on how many flexible workers are promoted, and whether they progress well.

We often hear of women nominally being ‘supported’ back into the workplace, but in practice, they are side-lined: as one Mumsnet user says, “I have been part time since 2005 and it's like career suicide. I have not had so much as a hint at promotion or anything.”

Use data to find out how your policies are really playing out. How many people work flexibly, which teams are particularly good at reintegrating returners, how well do teams with lots of flexible workers perform, which line managers approve lots of flexible working requests? Find out what works – and do more of that.

Employers need to make it okay to ask, even if the answer might be ‘no’. If you’re prepared to consider something, say so loud and clear in company literature.

Your company culture will determine whether on-paper arrangements really work. Is there a long hours culture? Do meetings regularly get scheduled at 6pm? What kind of networking activities are the norm in your industry or company? When do these take place? Are policies hidden away on the intranet, or do managers proactively discuss them and report updates? Cultivate a culture where flexible working (in general), and your specific policies, are discussed openly. One crucial lesson is that employers need to make it okay to ask, even if the answer might be ‘no’. If you’re prepared to consider something, say so loud and clear in company literature.

Time and time again, Mumsnet users voice their frustration at conversations about ‘mothers at work’. Their children’s father will often work too, and they’d like dads to be included in these conversations about how to combine families and work. Redirecting the flexible working conversation to fathers has a huge potential to turn things around for both families and employers. Encouraging fathers to take time off work will promote equality and will help change societal pressures on mothers (who are expected to take on the vast majority of parental and domestic responsibilities) and on fathers (who, it is assumed, barely want to see their families at all).

According to a survey we undertook in 2015, most Mumsnet users want paternity pay to be more generous and would support some form of exclusive paid paternity leave. Employees seeing senior staff in leadership positions, including men, taking parental leave and/or adopting flexible working patterns and continuing to progress will be far more effective at transforming company culture than ten pages on the company intranet.

Father teaching his baby how to walk

Take flexible working further: Mumsnet users firmly believe that all these benefits should be available to all staff, to avoid breeding resentment and to recognise that people who don’t have children want to maintain a happy work-life balance to suit their own circumstances.

A final thought: discrimination. A recent Mumsnet survey found that most employers and recruiters agreed that pregnant women are discriminated against, and more than four in ten employers and recruiters have heard someone responsible for recruitment expressing the view that employing women is an extra hassle.

Over a third of women workers have been asked if they have children and over a fifth how they would manage childcare. To put it mildly, this isn’t encouraging – a workplace supportive of working mothers isn’t likely to follow. So while you consider how you’re supporting women in the workplace, bear in mind that discrimination can begin long before they’ve even set foot into the office.

Mumsnet is working with HRZone and Womba on a special family friendly month, to bring focus to issues around flexible working and returning to work after parental leave. Check out the rest of the materials here.

HR Zone Womba logos