This Sunday, mothers will be celebrated with brunches, bouquets, and sappy cards. While their families will be singing their praises, UBC sociologist Sylvia Fuller says their employers should be doing the same.
What benefits can mothers bring to a workforce?
First of all, mothers are breadwinners. Employers have often looked particularly positively at fathers, because they presume they’re going to be more committed and focused on work because they have extra mouths to feed.
But this is true of mothers as well. Mothers’ earnings are critical to not just their own wellbeing, but their families’ wellbeing too. There is also some evidence that mothers job-hop a little less frequently than other women. The extra responsibility of parenting does seem to increase commitment to an organization.
How can employers support mothers in the workplace?
Employers should think of all workers as having lives and obligations that extend beyond the workplace. This matters, first of all, because it’s true. And secondly, because when employers make policies that apply only to mothers, there’s a possibility that it’s just lip service, or that those who take advantage of it are actually penalized. There is lots of qualitative evidence that mothers fear being penalized in some way for taking advantage of policies that are perceived as being aimed only at them.
Mothers—and fathers—lose out when there’s a culture and expectation of long hours. We still have more gendered expectations that mothers are going to be there and spend more time with their kids and their families, so it’s both harder for mothers to work those long hours, and they tend to be perceived more negatively when they do. Supporting fathers in their role as caregivers and creating a climate of reasonable expectations for all workers also helps mothers.
My research shows that allowing flexibility in work hours seems to be decreasing wage penalties for mothers relative to women who don’t have kids. So, for example, if you have to leave a bit early because your kid is sick, you’re able to make it up later.
How do lower-income mothers fare in the workplace?
We often focus a lot on professional women and the problems of balancing demanding jobs with the expectations of caring and motherhood. But it’s a whole lot harder if you don’t have money to secure reliable, safe childcare; to order in a pizza if you’re exhausted after work; or to hire someone to help clean your home.
In addition, women with less education have jobs that are more rigid. If you’re working as a server in a restaurant, for example, you can’t do that from home in the evenings to make up lost time. There’s also an unpredictability of schedules. The B.C. Employment Standards Act allows two-hour shifts for part-time workers. You can be scheduled for a longer shift, and then be sent home after two hours if it’s not busy. That’s deadly if you have to pay someone to care for your kids, whether you get paid for your full shift or not.
If you’re an employer and you’re finding that mothers seem to be less dependable or less able to show up at short notice on a shift, maybe the problem is your schedule, and not so much some personal failing of the parent. Try to give more notice about when shifts are scheduled, and allow flexibility for employees to swap shifts around.
What are some good employment policies?
There should be the provision that employees can take days off, not just when they’re sick, but if anyone in their family needs to be cared for. Allow people to have more autonomy over their work; focus on the results rather than on face time.
Topping up parental-leave payments for men or women who take it is also a great thing to do; it’s a real earnings hit to live just on EI, and of course that’s particularly true for lower earners.
A substantial proportion of mothers do work part-time, and that’s more common among mothers with less than a university education. In Europe, you’re not allowed to pay somebody a smaller hourly wage just because they work part-time. We don’t have those protections in Canada, and we should. Part-time workers pay a penalty for working part-time, and that needs to change.