The secret to work/parenting success? Choose the right company

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After the birth of her second child, Lara O’Shea, could easily have thrown up her hands, said, “Enough already!”, and left her job as an account director at powerhouse advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather. But she didn’t.

Her reason? She was working at the right company.

For the third year in a row Ogilvy has been named one of the best places to work for moms by Working Mother Magazine. Not only do they offer twelve weeks of paid parental leave, they have generous flexible work policies, pumping rooms for nursing moms, and a maternity return program that allows for slower on-ramping after the birth of a new baby.

It was this commitment to support mothers that kept Lara loyal. As she told me, “Why would I want to leave when I know I can thrive here as a professional and a mother?”

That’s the dream, isn’t it? To find a company that supports the full you now that you’re about to become a mom. The sad truth is they’re hard to find. I interviewed 186 women and surveyed nearly 1,500 more for my book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. Many of the women who paused their careers shared that one of the main reasons they left was because they worked for companies that didn’t support mothers.

They told me about workplaces that seemed right out of the 1950s: Men working all hours with wives at home to care for the kids. This workplace structure is based on the “ideal worker” model in which the employee is available 24/7, can travel at will, and who doesn’t have to worry about those pesky little distractions we call life. Sadly, even today most companies still operate with the ideal worker in mind.

But here’s another important finding I learned from my research: those women who did have companies which supported them were much more likely to stay engaged in their careers and be committed to their employers. With unemployment hovering around 4 percent, companies are eager to attract and retain great talent. This means you get to be choosy.

Here are five things to look for in an employer so you can thrive as a mother and a professional:

1. Look at senior leadership

A culture that truly values work/life success has leaders who model it each and every day. Companies that have CEOS who are work devoted and who are driven by the ideal worker model are companies that won’t ever truly support your personal commitments. Why? Because they expect you to have someone at home (e.g. a housewife) taking care of those little distractions we call life. Nice gig if you can get it, but most of us need two careers to support our lives.

One way to be sure you are choosing a company in which you can thrive as both a mother and a professional is to find out if the CEO puts her or his family as a priority. Are they out and proud about participating in their children’s activities? Does she or he have a hobby outside of work?

What about the leadership team as a whole? Are there women up at top? Do they have partners with thriving careers? Do they have children? If not, they’re probably ideal workers who are work devoted and are likely to expect the same from their employees. Remember, it is easy to pay lip service to work/life integration, but infusing it into the DNA of the company starts at the top.

2. What are their parental leave policies?

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not offer mothers paid maternity leave. As a result, if you want paid leave, most Americans are forced to rely on their employer. But according to the U.S Department of Labor, only 12 percent of Americans have access to paid leave through their employer. So the first thing to find out is if your employer even offers paid leave.

Assuming they do, the next question is how long. The standard paid leave used to be six weeks, but we are seeing a big increase in the amount of time offered. In Silicon Valley, the typical leave is four months. In other industries, eight to twelve weeks is more the norm.

Forward-thinking companies aren’t limiting paid leave to new mothers. Paid leave for fathers is becoming the human resource solution for companies trying to attract top talent. And for good reason. Research out of Europe shows that when men take paid leave their children end up healthier and their partners’ careers thrive. One recruiter I spoke to told me Millennial men won’t even consider a job if they can’t get paid leave upon the birth of a child.

3. What kind of support do they offer new parents?

So you’ve had the baby, taken a meaningful maternity leave, and are now ready to return to work. Does your company offer an option for a slower onramp back to work? Do they have well equipped nursing rooms? Is there a new parents’ network? These programs used to be considered luxury perks, but with sixty-four million Millennials expected to become parents in the next decade, these aren’t perks they’re prerequisites for attracting the best talent.

Policies and programs that support new parents are not just symbols of the “get it” factor for companies, they are the daily solutions that help parents navigate work and life. If your company doesn’t offer them, perhaps it’s not a place that really supports true work/life success.

4. What about child care support?

It costs more for a year of child care than it does to pay for one year of college tuition in 24 states in this country. I learned that for many women the high cost of child care is what sends them packing.

Sadly, only 7 percent of companies offer onsite child care even though 93 percent of employee report that having onsite child care is important when choosing an employer and employee absenteeism as a result of child care breakdowns cost American businesses $3 billion annually.

While the vast majority of companies don’t offer onsite child care, around 30 percent of companies do offer some form of child care reimbursement. For example, Facebook gives new parents $4,000 to defray expenses, but when the annual cost of child care in California runs around $12,000, a one-time gift is certainly not enough.

When considering which company you are going to invest your talents in, make sure they are investing in you by offering some sort of child care support.

5. Do they offer return-to-work internships?

Many of the women I interviewed were able to navigate being a first time mother, but it was the birth of subsequent children and the ensuing chaos that comes from trying to juggle kids schedules and the increasing work demands of being a mid-career professional that sent them packing.

These days, companies are realizing a smart way to bring mid-career professionals back after a pause for parenting is to offer return-to-work internships. These are typically three month paid internships that provide a try-and-buy solution for both employers and potential employees. One women I interviewed had taken a 15 year career break but was able to get her career in banking back on track by participating in JP Morgan’s return-to-work internship.

A company that offers these programs is a company that you can be sure is committed to supporting mothers to thrive. Visit iRelaunch.com to learn more about return-to-work internships.

And you can learn more about how trailblazing women have navigated the work/lfie conundrum by reading my book. Pick up a copy of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career at your local bookstore or online to learn more.

Meanwhile, I’m here to answer your questions in my Should I stay or should I go column for this magazine. Email me at lisen [at] pregnancymagazine.com. I’d love to hear from you.

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