(Photo by Jacoblund/iStock by Getty Images)

“A couple of years ago around this time, it felt like workplace accommodations for working parents were at an all-time high. Were we just recipients of sympathy? Is the honeymoon over?”

This is how Callum Borchers, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal who writes about people’s careers and work lives, opened a fireside chat titled “How Caregiving Expectations Hold Women Back–and What Needs to Change” during From Day One’s July virtual conference on giving working families the benefits and flexibility they need today. His interview subject was Colleen Ammerman, the director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School and co-author of the book Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work.

“In some sense, the honeymoon is over,” Ammerman said. “But my hope is that we don’t abandon the consciousness-raising and shift [back] to the mentality that everyone has to figure it out for themselves, because that’s what we used to do to working parents.” What, then, can employers do to resist the backslide?

Caregiver Expectations Hold Back Women, and Men

Women disproportionately take on caregiving responsibilities, and if we want to prevent this from holding women back, the it has for so long, Borchers and Ammerman said we have to set the expectation that men are caregivers too, and make it easy for men to take parental leave. But even if men are given parental leave, they may not feel comfortable taking it. “There’s the on-the-ground reality, then there’s the policy on paper,” Borchers said.

Employers may be “missing elements of their culture, sometimes at the department level or team level, that make it that much harder for people to take advantage,” said Ammerman. She called these “micro-cultures”: the environments within a department or team, often driven by the way a manager feels about performance. One team may have a leader who prioritizes work output and another may have a leader that prioritizes time in the office. Ammerman recommended “encouraging managers to get away from those assumptions and look at what people are producing, look at what they’re doing, and define ‘How am I measuring value?’”

A fireside chat on caregiving and careers: moderator Callum Borchers of the Wall Street Journal, left, and author and academic Colleen Ammerman (Image by From Day One)

Still, many men do not take parental leave even when it’s available to them, so how do we get them to? Mandating that employees take the leave is one way, incentivizing is another, and modeling behavior is another, and perhaps the most powerful.

According to Ammerman, “There is something to be said for particularly men in leadership positions both role-modeling this and speaking up about it and setting an expectation to say, ‘Yes, I do expect all of the people in the organization who are in caregiving roles to take advantage.’”

Making Hybrid Work Possible Without Penalty 

Remote and hybrid work has made caregiving much more possible for parents, and women are likelier than men to prefer these arrangements as a result of their outsized care burden.

But, Borcher wondered, should we be concerned about proximity bias? That is, the tendency for those who work in person to get more opportunities for advancement than those who work remotely. “That’s not something that I would expect any single organization to solve,” Ammerman said. “That is an entrenched societal problem. However, organizations don’t have to further entrench that and further disadvantage women’s careers. The way that organizations approach hybrid work and how they manage who takes it up and what that means for those employees is within their span of control.”

Avoiding this is usually a matter of making performance evaluations as objective as possible. “It comes down to thinking about how we’re measuring people’s output in performance,” she said. “Are we doing it objectively? Is it job-relevant?”

One Way to End the Motherhood Penalty

The motherhood penalty is the bias women face in their perceived competence and commitment to their jobs and the subsequent hit to their pay and careers.

Early career employees may be evaluated on objective measures, but for mid-career women,  “it’s a bit more about your presence and about your relationships,” Ammerman said. “It’s a proving ground where people start to emerge as leaders or stay a little bit more at the mid-level.”

It’s here that women start encountering the motherhood penalty. “They’re facing assumptions about how committed they are to their jobs, and how much they do want to climb the ladder,” said Ammerman. Those assumptions stunt, or even end, career growth.

“You have situations where managers are making decisions for them or not giving them opportunities or just evaluating them differently. That’s where you see really that frozen middle, right where women get very stuck at the mid-level.”

Ammerman said she’s heard from women in executive roles whose early career managers passed them over for opportunities based on assumptions like, for example, they wouldn’t want to operate in certain parts of the world or wouldn’t want to spend time away from their families or deal with a particularly difficult client. What they really wanted is for their manager to ask them about the opportunity, rather than making assumptions about their work/life responsibilities.

“All of them said the point of the story was, ‘I have to tell that manager, thank you for your concern, but actually, those are the kinds of opportunities I’m interested in.’”

Reproductive Care for All Workers, Not Just Full-Time Employees

Access to reproductive health care and access to professional opportunity are positively correlated, according to the Center for American Progress, and the millions of women who lost access to abortion care following the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade now face greater challenges to their careers.

Though many employers have made pledges to cover the cost for aboortion for their employees, regardless of where they live, this coverage is unlikely to apply to anyone other than full-time employees.

“I would encourage companies to think about the spectrum of workers who are being targeted by a lot of those policies who work for large global companies, who are knowledge workers, who already are higher-earning,” Ammerman said. The ones who won’t have access are contractors, freelancers, temporary workers, and those who work part-time.

“Companies need to be thinking about the spectrum of people that they employ, either directly or indirectly, and what’s their situation in light of the decision? It’s great to offer these kinds of support and benefits for one section of the workforce, but there’s a whole lot of people that we’re going to leave behind if companies just focus on that narrow segment.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.