Making it Work for Working Mothers

Tina Fey in an American Express Ad

The Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2013 has 39 percent women, a record high for the school.  Looking at history, it is evident that this number demonstrates significant progress in women’s advancement in business.  But, when we look at the business world today, we see many statistics that do not reflect the same degree of progress.

A recent Fortune magazine article notes that women make up just three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs today.  For this reason our field study team undertook a project to understand how organizations can create an environment that is supportive of executive working mothers through both formal and informal policies, programs and practices.   We conducted a review of current literature and spoke with 39 working mothers and 15 human resources professionals and experts in the field.  Our key conclusions and takeaways are outlined below.

Our ultimate objective for the study was to help others understand what factors make an organization a great place for executive working mothers and how working executive mothers can be strategic in finding the best companies and roles for their needs.  We also hope our findings will empower men and women to act as change agents in their future organizations.

Parent-Focused Programs are an Important Baseline

Great improvements have been made in maternity leave policies, and many companies are beginning to offer paternity leave as well.  Company-supported child care, such as on-site day care or back-up care is also becoming more common.  While many of the women we spoke with found these programs to be very beneficial, neither were true differentiating factors for success in balancing work and family.  In speaking with working mothers, it seems that maternity leave polices have in some ways become a baseline benefit.  Since maternity leave policies are increasingly becoming expected by working mothers, the absence of good maternity leave elicited a very strong negative reaction.  A woman’s professional, financial and personal circumstances influenced the importance of child care.  For many women, child care was not a crucial factor in the ability to maintain career momentum.  Despite this, many of the women we spoke with noted there is additional value in programs such as these as indicators of an organization’s broader commitment to support working parents.

The Three Main Enablers of Success Are Flexibility, People and Culture

While each woman’s process for balancing work and family was unique, across all of our conversations three factors stood out as being most beneficial:  flexibility, people and culture.

 Flexibility:   One of the most often stated contributors to success as a working mother was access to flexibility, both formally and informally.  For most women, flexibility as a working mother essentially meant the ability to prioritize family when they needed to, while maintaining a commitment to producing high quality work.   Examples of flexibility include flexible work hours, career flexibility through access to different roles including non-client or reduced travel roles, and alternative work arrangements such as part-time or job shares.  Regardless of the specific type of flexibility, the women believed that it was critical that flexible roles not hurt their overall career progression.

 People:  The majority of the women we spoke with mentioned it was crucial to have access to individuals who were supportive of their professional and personal responsibilities.  The individual that had the most influence over one’s success as a working mother was unsurprisingly one’s boss; many women talked about how having a supportive and understanding boss made a difference in their ability to maintain career momentum and a satisfying family life.

Mentors were noted as the second most important individuals, with many women speaking of the importance of having both professional mentors who provided career guidance and more personal mentors who provided advice on the unique challenges of being a working mother.  Finally, women noted that having access to other women, specifically other working mothers, either through formal networking programs or informal relationships, was very beneficial in getting both advice and support.

 Culture:   Over 75 percent of the women we spoke with listed a culture that was supportive of working parents as being extremely important.  Given that culture is an inherently difficult thing to judge from the outside, the women provided potential indicators of a supportive culture.  As mentioned above, the presence of formal policies and programs, such as parental leave and child care can be good indicators of how an organization values working parents.

However, many women reiterated that beyond merely offering these programs it was important for the company to see these programs as part of a strategic priority aimed at keeping working mothers in the company for business reasons.  The CEO and senior leadership’s viewpoints on family are also important to gauge.  Indicators may include whether senior leaders personally prioritize their family at times or encourage others to do so.

How individuals in the broader organization view family is also important and is often represented by how open individuals are about having families.  Finally, the presence of mothers at the top and in various roles and functions throughout the organization is a great indicator that there are ways to make it work within that company.

Finding Your Version of Balance is a Personal Process

While our study was focused on how organizations can support executive working mothers, we have come to a greater appreciation of the fact that it is up to the individual to figure out how best to balance the demands of having a career and a family.  Within the context of a career, this involves finding a career you love, forging a path that works for you and making conscious trade-offs when necessary.

The interviewees recommended that women first and foremost pick their careers and companies based on a passion for the job, rather than on the parent-focused programs available.  Although many women noted it was difficult to be away from their children each day at work, they relied on the fact that they felt motivated, challenged and inspired by what they do.

The women strongly recommended that individual women figure out what they need to be successful and then ask for it.  The women also recommend that individuals think through the trade-offs they would be willing to make before it comes time to make them.  Finally, for many women, the recognition that they were planning a long-term career, or “running a marathon rather than a sprint” made some of the trade-offs easier.

 A full copy of the paper is available at:  //

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