For working mothers today, much of the stigma previous generations dealt with such as being viewed as unstable, unreliable, or not loyal in the workplace, are gone—having been replaced with employers attempting to retain this significant part of their workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, working mothers are the norm today. In fact, 71 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 participate in the labor force, with more than 75 percent employed fulltime. This is up from 45 percent in 1975. Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under age 18 today, compared to 11 percent in 1960.
Women’s participation in the labor force has climbed since World War II, from 32.7 percent in 1948 to 56.8 percent in 2016. The increase is even more pronounced for mothers with young children. Between 1975 and 2015, the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under age 3 increased by 27.1 percentage points.
Nevertheless, working mothers still face numerous challenges, including finding access to good quality and affordable child care; balancing their work and home life; and dealing with changing family relationship patterns. And for nursing moms, finding both time and a place at work to continue pumping breast milk is a challenge. While the North Bay may not yet share the ranks of some Silicon Valley tech firms that boast on-site child-care centers and lactation rooms, employers here have accommodated and grown in their understanding of working mothers’ needs. Ironically, the recent tragedy of the North Bay fires made many employers all too aware of how important working mothers are to our workforce and local economy.
“We are moving to being a more family-friendly community, and we’re ripe for the conversation right now,” says Kelly Bass Seibel, the director of business development and partnerships at the Petaluma Health Center, chair of First 5 Sonoma County, and mother to an almost four-year-old daughter, Riley. “With the fires, as schools and preschools were closed, employers learned quickly how much their workforce depends on child care. This was something they already knew, but when it actually happened, it suddenly hit them with the reality. And that reality is: employers don’t have a workforce if their working parents don’t have a place for their children to go during the day,” she says.
During the fires, the Petaluma Health Center had to remain open for patients, but many of their employees themselves were affected by the fires and their children’s care providers were closed. The health center partnered with the North Bay Children’s Center, which was also closed but was able to bring their staff in and provide child care for the health center’s employees, so they could continue to work during the fires.
For Bass Seibel, having an employer that allows flexibility in her schedule has been a key factor in making the work-life balance a success. This doesn’t work in every field, of course, but offering flexibility is key for working mothers. This includes working from home some days per week, or when a child is sick, accepting flexible start times to allow for drop offs to child-care providers; and making time available for a nursing mom to pump breast milk at work can be vital in retaining a working mother’s skills and talent.
“Technology has changed a lot,” says Bass Seibel. “I can work from home, I can remote in with my computer, and I have a work issued cell phone. I don’t have to be sitting in my office to do my job. The recognition from employers that flexible scheduling is an option is incredibly helpful. If you said every employee has to be here from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., means you have to find a child-care center probably near your work that’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. That’s especially challenging to find. If employers are willing to be flexible with their employees’ schedules, that’s helpful.”
With many preschools not being set up for working moms and expecting the child to be picked up by noon or 3:30, it can be incredibly challenging to juggle it all time-wise, as well as afford quality care with daycares and preschools costing upwards into the thousands of dollars per month.
“In general, Sonoma County is a great place to raise a family, but we’re an expensive place to live and when you add the cost of daycare on top of that it’s incredible,” says Bass Seibel, who pays more than $1,000 per month for her daughter’s full-time preschool. “For parents that are working in a manufacturing job or in the hospitality industry, how do they do it? How do they make ends meet? There is state subsidized child care, but the income threshold is so low that it’s hard for families to make under that income threshold. To live in Sonoma County you couldn’t live on that. It’s a big challenge.”
To help make ends meet, the Petaluma Health Center, like many employers, offers a dependent care flex spending account (FSA)—a pre-tax benefit account that can be used to pay for eligible dependent care services, such as preschool, summer day camp, before or after school programs, and daycare. Up to $5,000 per year can be withdrawn pre-tax into an account that can then be used to reimburse those child-care expenses. “That’s one of the easiest things I think employers can do as far as offering a benefit,” says Bass Seibel. “It can be a big savings.”
For Karen Murphy, co-founder and owner of Kidz Point, a Sausalito-based integrative therapy practice for children that provides neural-sensory based therapies for pediatrics including occupational therapy, traditional Chinese medicine and yoga, finding balance is key to managing both a busy practice and family life with a middle school and a high school aged child.
“Balance is the key word and is the biggest challenge,” says Murphy. “It takes a lot of time to do the job of work itself and the commute, but then you also come home and you’re still on—making sure kids do their homework, or they may need help with editing a paper—and then there’s dinner: shopping, cooking, cleaning up and packing up leftovers for lunches. You have to find the balance and be a good manager.”
In the mix of being present and available for both work and home, Murphy also states the importance of working parents to take some time for themselves to ensure their health and well-being. To that end, she may make time for yoga during her lunch break, for example. Also carving out specific times that are only devoted for family has helped ensure a positive balance.
“For our family what’s worked well and again, finding that balance, is taking the time on the weekends to be together as a family,” says Murphy. “We also do our best to sit down and have dinner together every single night.”
Can working mothers today really have it all? According to Murphy, if women believe they can do it, then they certainly can. We live in a society where women can have children and a good home life, as well as a fulfilling career, as long as both stresses are managed and “having it all” is kept in perspective.
“Being a good manager of stress [is important] because once the stress starts happening, then you lose having it all,” says Murphy. “Also setting expectations that we don’t need so much to have it all. Having it all for me as I'm learning later in life is being happy with having less, and being happy with what we have. We have a home, a wonderful family, and we live in this beautiful area in Northern California. Going for a hike, cooking a wonderful dinner, having friends and getting together and sharing a bottle of wine and food—that’s having it all.”
The proportion of women with college degrees in the labor force has almost quadrupled since 1970, according to the Department of Labor. More than 40 percent of women in the labor force had college degrees in 2016, compared to 11 percent in 1970. In fact, today 34 percent of women have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared to only 26 percent of men. With more women having jobs in upper-management positions, and many of those women being mothers themselves, the culture is changing to encompass more understanding of working mother’s needs and struggles.
“What is changing in the workforce is more of the support network or an acceptance of women who are in leadership or management roles who are also parents,” says Molly Rattigan, deputy county executive officer for the County of Napa, who also has a three-year-old daughter. “One of the great things when I was pregnant with my daughter was that the county executive officer at the time was a mother of a young child herself. I was pregnant and had the support of two bosses who were both working mothers and had been through that experience and what it’s like to have a baby, take time off, and then go back to work. They were nothing but supportive as I navigated that work-life balance.” She adds, “I felt tremendous support from coworkers at the time. People were willing to cover for me, help out while I was on maternity leave, or if I had a sick child, people were willing to help and jump in.”
Having that support and understanding is especially important in her career in government. Because government is run by taxpayer money and is under the scrutiny of public perception, features like flextime and alternate schedules aren’t as widely available as in the private sector.
Another factor that greatly helps Rattigan in her work-life balance is the support she receives from her husband. While he had a career as well, the family made the decision early on that he would be the one who would make himself more available when it came to child-care issues.
“We made a choice for my husband to take a step back from his career to be more available for our daughter and to be home and available more for pick ups and drop offs and some of the child-care issues,” says Rattigan. “I think you’re seeing that happen a lot more. “Where I work, there are several other women who are either single parents, or have spouses that have made career changes to be more available for the children like you might have traditionally seen a mother be. That’s what I’m seeing change—that it’s okay for the father to take a more active or more time committed role in child care. You’re seeing more and more women returning to work with husbands who might be staying at home or might be working part time.”
Fathers in general are taking more of an active role in child rearing today, and stay-at-home fathers are becoming a growing trend as more women ascend to upper management positions in their careers and take on the role of primary breadwinner. Financially, it often makes sense for the mother to return to work and the father to stay home.
Working fathers who are more involved in childrearing than in past decades has also contributed to an understanding in the workplace of the work-family balance. As male colleagues and managers feel the need to be with their children more as well, it creates a work environment that fosters support and understanding for both mothers and fathers.
“I have a lot of male colleagues who treat parenting the same way that I do—they want to be there for performances, they want to be there to volunteer in their kid’s classes and those sorts of things,” says Rattigan. “So having bosses or leaders, in my case elected officials, who are parents of young children or have been through parenting, you have more understanding of finding that work/life balance regardless if you’re male or female. When one of my male colleagues needs to leave it’s just the same as when one of my female colleagues has to leave for a child issue. We’re there to help each other because we all have kids and we need to support each other when we need time off or need to attend to something with our family.”
Overall, the business community has come a long way in understanding, supporting, and accommodating the needs of working mothers. Because women, many of them mothers, are continually playing an important role in all levels of our local economy, it benefits employers to continue making strides in retaining this critical portion of our workforce.
There are some key factors that employers can do to foster a work culture of recruiting and retaining working mothers, says Andrew McNeil, principal of Arrow Benefits Group, a company that provides solutions for managing benefits and personalized human resource solutions for employers.
“Practice what they preach,” says McNeil. “If that’s something they want to do then they should definitely do it, and make it known that they support that. Especially now with the Internet and social media, you can blast a lot of stuff out there on record. If people look you up as an organization, they can check you out and see what you support. Companies don’t lose by being progressive on this topic. If anything, that will help keep the people that they want to keep there longer.”
According to McNeil, there are three important aspects to creating a desirable environment for working moms: child care (or a dependent care assistance program), flexible hours and/or being flexible, and separate sick time.
The Worksite Held Employee English Learning—known as the WHEEL program—was created by Kelly Bass Seibel while she worked as the director of workforce development as well as vice president of Public Policy at the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, overseeing the Chamber’s advocacy and workforce development efforts. The program was originally created to provide English language classes for employees at their place of employment, but quickly grew to include a financial literacy component, assistance in learning how to better communicate with schools, and has now expanded to include an extended family literacy class to increase the participation of parents in the education of their young children.
“While I was running the community relations division I started looking at value-adds for our members,” says Bass Seibel. “We looked at what companies were looking for, and at the same time were working with the education community and hearing a lot about the changing demographic of our school population. Knowing that we have a growing English learner population in our schools, we looked at what we could do to prepare our future workforce for jobs in Sonoma County and what could strengthen the relationship between the business community and the education community. We wanted the business community to understand the education that kids were receiving in Sonoma County and the business community could help the education community see what needed to be developed—where future jobs are going to be.”
Given that language is often both the barrier of parents being involved in their children’s schools and advancing at work, the Chamber developed a program which started as on-site English classes in the workplace. The classes were a great success and the program started to grow.
When Bass Seibel became director of workforce development at the Chamber, she looked at other ways businesses could become partners with their employees as parents and understand barriers that working moms face. Research showed that a substantial reason employers lose employees is when mothers do not return after maternity leave, and one of the biggest expenses for an employer is hiring and training new employees. In addition, research also showed that a child’s greatest brain development occurs between birth to 5 years old. Therefore, being involved with helping parents ensure their children are getting good quality care that prepares them for kindergarten also ensures that child is on track to excel academically and later, in the workforce.
“We would partner with businesses and work with them, so they’re family friendly and support family-friendly policies across our entire community,” says Bass Seibel. “That strengthens our business community and our workforce. The partnerships also mean that kids are supported at home as well and parents are supported—they’re able to stay in their jobs and are also supported in doing their most challenging work—being a parent.”
The WHEEL program is still in operation today, and is partly funded by First 5 Sonoma County. The program is customized based on a business’ needs and currently includes family-friendly policy support and suggestions, school engagement workshops, onsite English classes, financial literacy workshops and community service projects. They’ve found that employees average a 15 percent gain in life skills and reading assessment during their first eight-week session of English classes, and that employees that participated in eight, eight-week sessions increased their basic English skills 88.9 percent. The immediate benefits to employers of the WHEEL program include improved employee morale, less turnover, higher attendance, ease in instituting changes, improved safety and happier employees. In the long-term, employers participating in the program are helping build a stronger future workforce.
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