It’s official: Women now hold the majority of jobs in the paid workforce. When employment numbers from the latest Labor Department report were calculated, they revealed that women hold 50.02 percent — the majority — of all non-farm jobs for the second time in United States history.
And yet, despite hitting this milestone, society’s attitudes and policies aimed at working women have not always kept pace with this rapidly growing demographic. When workplaces fail to adapt and accommodate for their female employees, the impact can be particularly striking for one group: working mothers.
In the 1960s, when a man was typically his family’s breadwinner, American mothers spent on average just nine hours a week performing paid labor. Today, however, around 70 percent of mothers hold jobs, and 75 percent of those women work full-time. In fact, working mothers have been the norm since 1978, when the labor force participation of married mothers reached 50.2 percent.
And yet, over 40 years after working moms became the “new normal,” they often struggle to fit their position as an employee and parent into a traditional worker mold. Many encounter the “maternal wall” — a type of discrimination levied against female workers once they have children. Stereotypes that working moms are less devoted to their careers may also contribute to moms being paid a mere 71 cents on the dollar compared to working fathers.
What working moms need is not just a slight tweak in employer policies: they need a shift in how society views and accommodates them as a sector of the workforce. Working mothers are the rule, not the exception, and it’s time society adjusted accordingly.
So how do we embark on this significant paradigm shift?
To be sure, enacting mom-friendly policies is a start. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensures family leave is available to 89 percent of Americans with job protection for up to 12 weeks (17 percent receive paid leave). A key section of the Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide time and space for mothers to express breastmilk on the job. Both policies provide working mothers with protections employers might not offer voluntarily.
But while policies like these prevent overt discrimination, it’s not enough to legislate society into tolerating moms who work. We must take concrete steps to change our collective mind-set toward working mothers.
According to a 2011 study at Boston College, 16 percent of men took no time off following the birth of their most recent child, and 96 percent took two weeks or less. When men choose to take extended paternity leave, it normalizes the maternity leave taken by moms. (As a bonus, time at home has loads of benefits for dads and babies, too.)
Working mothers often engage in what economist Emily Oster calls “secret parenting,” where they hide parenting obligations for fear of appearing uncommitted to their job. Senior employees — both male and female — can combat this cycle by being transparent about their parental roles. If they disclose they are leaving early to care for a sick child, other working moms won’t feel ostracized for doing the same.
Current FMLA regulations provide certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. But if mothers decide to extend their time at home, many are terminated and must reapply for their jobs. If employers instead allow mothers to maintain their employee status, either by reducing hours or working from home, they can ensure mothers a smoother transition back to work.
Traditional school schedules, from start and end times to number of vacation days, assume that families have a caregiver available to supervise children outside school hours. Since that is no longer the norm, the American Center for Progress has myriad suggestions for making school schedules friendlier to working parents. Whether it’s by funding after-school programs or revamping bus schedules for consistency, small changes can make a big difference for working moms.
It’s time both men and women championed policies and conditions that support working mothers. Their presence at work is already commonplace. Let’s finally adjust accordingly.
Heather Mace is a teacher and mentor in Tucson. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.