Parental leave isn’t enough

It’s time to face the truth: Parental leave isn’t enough. Employers in a country with no mandated federal parental leave may think that they support parents by offering any paid leave at all. But by only focusing on parental support during the first stage of childhood, employers are failing parents and limiting their pool of exceptional workers. It’s time for employers to reexamine how they support parents beyond the infancy phase—an action that holds unsung benefits for business.

I’m the founder of a biotech start-up called Helaina. I’m also a new mom. Since my son Leo was born last summer, I began the balancing act of life as a CEO and mother. In that short time I’ve experienced firsthand how the demands of parenthood continue beyond the early days. Children of all ages and childcare workers get sick; Childcare costs are soaring (averaging $10,600 per child per year, and climbing); School pick-up is in the middle of the day. We all know this. And yet, some employers deny that reality.

Related: Companies are cutting parental leave—why doesn’t the U.S. value families?

This disconnect directly contributes to the unique disadvantages that parents, particularly women, face in the workplace. According to a 2022 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Parenthood reduces female employment by 25% and female earnings by 33%, relative to males.” Female employment has continued to drop in recent years; moms surveyed in Motherly’s 2023 State of Motherhood Report cite expensive childcare and rigid work schedules as two key reasons for leaving the workforce.

But some change is within our grasp. The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act was just signed into law, ensuring federal protection for many breastfeeding moms’ right to break time and a private space to pump during the day. The PUMP Act also makes it possible for breastfeeding moms to file lawsuits against employers who fail to abide by the law. More federal protections for parents followed in April, when President Biden signed an executive order focused on steps to make child care more affordable and accessible. It includes over 50 directives to various federal agencies. While the impact of this order will be determined over time, in the meantime, employers have the ability and responsibility to take action now. Employers can support women and parents in several, tangible ways that connect with highly-qualified job seekers. And, should parents receive more tangible support? This would result in happier families and more engaged, more productive, less resentful and less burnt-out employees.

4 ways (and reasons) companies can support parents

1. Provide childcare stipends

Motherly’s 2023 State of Motherhood Report found that 52% of working moms have considered leaving the workforce because childcare is too expensive. The same survey found that 67% of moms spend at least $1,000 per month on childcare. Offsetting these costs as part of an employee’s benefits package is a concrete way to demonstrate that your workplace is one that values equity and inclusivity. If employers truly want a diverse workforce, they must acknowledge the soaring cost of childcare and the economic toll it takes on parents. Employers should care because “one-third of the U.S workforce has a child under 14 in their household,” according to the Harvard Business Review. Why isolate one-third of the American workforce? Doing so only denies the link between childcare and the economy.

Related: It’s time for employers to stop penalizing parents who take paid family leave

2. Embrace flexible schedules

Some employers fear that flexible schedules, such as allowing parents to pick up a child from school or gather with family for an early dinner, results in less productivity. But the opposite is true. According to a Future Forum Pulse report, “Workplace flexibility fuels company culture and productivity.” The metrics in this report are convincing. According to the report, “Employees who are dissatisfied with their level of flexibility at work are 43% more likely to say they feel burned out at work.” When employees can work on their own schedule, they are more productive, creative, and committed to your business. In situations, like labwork, where flexibility potential is limited, employers can still get creative. At Helaina, we have core working hours for lab staff, allowing employees to flex earlier or later depending on personal schedules.

3. Rethink after-hours events

Build morale and connections for employees by rethinking after-work events. When companies have regular events outside of business hours, parents are impacted the most. By being intentional about when successes are celebrated, employers can build the infrastructure for better integration, equality and social connections for parents. By choosing to light candles on a birthday cake during lunch or scheduling an off-site on a week day, rather than defaulting to after work or weekend events, employers are not only accommodating parents, but are also taking a step forward in gender equality in the workplace (where in 2022, women still only earned an average of 82% of what men earn).

Related: Paid leave is good for babies, women, families, businesses and America. Here’s why

4. Build additional support infrastructure

To enable parents to perform their best at work, employers must support workers themselves, not only their children. One example is employee resource groups for parents. Providing a space for parents to share concerns and challenges and connect with others who are facing similar obstacles has a quantifiable impact on employee retention and career satisfaction. According to an article titled “Childcare is a Business Issue” in the Harvard Business Review, “Companies that have adopted programming designed to build community and peer-to-peer support networks have seen a 90% increased commitment and organizational attachment from their female professionals.” Employees can help each other navigate the balance of home and work if they are given the space to do so.

Parenthood doesn’t start and end during maternity leave.

Last year, I joined the 72% of moms in the U.S. who work. Since becoming a parent, I’ve faced a stereotype that still persists in the start-up world: the assumption that parenthood and the demands of a start-up are incompatible. Sounds like something a man would say. American office culture was designed by men, for men. Or more specifically, by men without family responsibilities for men without family responsibilities. This no longer describes the average American worker, yet workplace culture has lagged behind in its evolution.

In my experience as a female founder of a rapidly growing Series A company, parenting is not a weakness, but rather a strength in my team. Parents are impressively judicious with their time. They are organized, fast decision makers, multi-taskers, creative thinkers, and goal-oriented. They have no time to waste, and so no time is wasted. Parents are some of my best employees.

Parenthood doesn’t start and end during maternity leave. Let’s give American mothers what they really want: comprehensive parental support benefits from infancy through teenage years. It’s time for a long overdue cultural shift in how the workplace views and treats parents. I believe that employers can and must lead the charge: Improve working conditions for parents and build a loyal company culture that allows your business to thrive.