It takes more than just policy to support women in the workforce

Jenna Vassallo
Mar 6, 2024
Two colleagues chat

As important as it is to offer paid parental leave, it’s necessary to pursue both policy and cultural changes to fully support working women.

Mita Mallick wrote a book debunking 13 myths around workplace inclusion, where she dedicated an entire chapter to why having a paid parental leave policy is not enough.

We spoke to her about why she believed parental leave deserved its own chapter and common misconceptions she’s uncovered about working women and mothers based on her personal experience and as a DEI leader at different organizations.

Here are three key takeaways:

Policies apply to more than just mom employees

Myth 8 in Mita’s book is titled: “Of Course we Support Women. We Just Expanded Maternity Leave.”

There are several reasons why Mita—herself a mom of two—dedicated an entire chapter to debunk this myth.

Her first point is that not all women become mothers. Her second point is that it takes supporting men, including fathers, to support women.

Focusing only on policy can also alienate non-parents, who might feel they are at a disadvantage when their colleagues go out on extended leave.

“So many of the things I've seen organizations do is the policy piece, and it’s really the cultural piece that matters,” she said.

Mita suggests companies focus on supporting all parents at every stage of their journey, from the newborn phase through college—because the needs of the parent and the child will differ over time.

Ask—don’t assume—what working moms need

Becoming a parent brings new responsibilities, but it doesn’t mean working mothers lose their ambition to focus on their careers.

Unfortunately, many employers often come to the opposite conclusion and make assumptions based on gender stereotypes.

“The biggest assumption I have heard over and over again in subtle and not-so-subtle ways is that it’s the woman’s job to care for her family,” Mita said. “That’s the underlying bias.”

Because of this, employers often make the mistake of assuming working mothers want to slow down vs. letting them decide what their career ambitions are.

This happened to Mita personally, when a former boss took a role off the table because she had young kids at the time. “I wish I had said to him, ‘Who gave you permission to slow down my career?’

So, really, the call to action is to never assume. Managers should have open dialog with employees on where they see their careers evolving next—and mothers need to keep advocating until they are heard.

Women are not (always) leaving jobs to stay home

Many employees end up believing moms leave to stay home with their kids.

But Mita found something entirely different when she delved into the exit interview data at one big public company: women left to get promoted faster, increase their salaries and get equity.

“When you pretend the problem doesn’t exist, how can you solve for it?” Mita asked.

She encourages companies to gauge their level of success in retaining moms by examining not only their own exit interview data, but also retention rates of mothers between the first year and five years post-maternity leave in addition to pay compared to fathers.

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Learn more about why it takes more than policy to support women in the workforce

Listen to Mita and Allison's full conversation on The False Tradeoff!