She’s Working 9-to-5… and 5-to-9

More mothers with young children are employed than ever before, but firms are struggling to support them.

When the pandemic sent them home, it also sent them out of the workforce, to take care of their young children when daycares were shut down. Now women workers with young children are back—and a new milestone has been set.

According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, the percentage of women with children under age five who are in the workforce hit a new high at 70%. That’s up from 60% during the pandemic, and slightly up from before COVID-19. The only problem: experts say companies aren’t responding to the change.

Indeed, a study last year showed that one-third of working mothers have seriously considered either leaving the workforce or curtailing their careers, and the number-one reason they give is childcare responsibilities. “We thought we had made big pandemic shifts to support mothers, but we haven’t,” says Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “Nothing much has changed.”

Before the pandemic, supporting working parents was a topic on leaders’ minds. Many companies spent substantial funds to accommodate working parents in the office, with some offering daycare and others subsidizing nearby childcare programs and emergency-care services. “A lot of those programs went out the window because no one was in the office,” says John Long, leader of the North American Retail Sector practice at Korn Ferry. Now, fewer than 1 in 10 companies offer childcare at the office, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Those that do tend to be large companies able to offer cheaper childcare at scale.

Since the outset of the pandemic, a combination of hybrid schedules and stringent cost-cutting efforts have left these perks on the cutting room floor. Experts worry the squeeze is only going to get worse: this month, pandemic funding to US daycares will expire, potentially causing some childcare programs to close.

To be sure, the situation for working parents is not all doom and gloom. Some parents report having more flexibility in recent years, particularly in their ability to log hours remotely, early, or late, or to slip away for school pickup. And it has become more acceptable in many corporate cultures to spot kids wandering through video-meeting screens. The boom in remote and hybrid roles has enabled some parents to enter—or stay—in the workforce. Yet at the same time, moves toward return to office are undoing much of that flexibility. “It’s one of the trade-offs that companies really need to think through,” says Bradford Frank, senior client partner in the Technology practice at Korn Ferry.

Experts suggest that managers and companies alike provide working parents with the flexibility to avoid toggling between children and working. When these parents are multitasking, “the fewer mental and emotional resources they have to invest in their work,” says Karen Huang, director of search assessment at Korn Ferry. Organizations can provide this kind of flexibility by choosing work hours that dovetail with school hours, or extending a deadline so that parents can resolve a childcare snafu. “Multitasking doesn’t exist,” she says.

Experts say firms can also ask themselves two questions: What childcare options are realistically available for employees who are on, say, hourly wages? And: Has the company done its best to minimize distractions so that employees are fully engaged? “The employer does not have responsibility to remove external distractions, but it does need to provide support as much as it can,” says Ronald Seifert, leader of the North America Workforce Reward and Benefits practice at Korn Ferry. 


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