Who Loves Ya, Baby?
Liz Gulliver found it terrifying.
There she was, successfully working in finance at a large bank. But a few years prior a female co-worker—one with a “super promising career path”—gave birth to a second child and ended up leaving the bank.
“She just could not find a way to make it work,” Gulliver says. At the time, Gulliver was considering her own family planning, “and I stopped being able to see much of my own career path forward…. There was nobody who was openly talking about juggling parenthood and their career in my workplace at that time. I started to realize it was a very broken system when it came to being a caregiver and taking care of your career.”
COVID-19 has exposed hidden caregivers of all types. But the pandemic has still been significantly harder on women.
Working parents make up 45% to 55% of the workforce. Extend the concept to caregiving of all sorts, and that number rises to two thirds.
Leaders need to open the dialogue on caregiving at all levels of an organization to effect any real change.
A friend from business school, Josh Horowitz, was noticing much of the same. His sister-in-law had also left her career when her child turned two. So Gulliver and Horowitz started asking questions. They began with their own network and, Gulliver says, “spiderwebbed from there.” Over two and a half months, they spoke with more than 1,500 working parents, and they found that there was an overall lack of support for working parents—especially in the workplace—along the continuum of their working life.
“We kept hearing that there had been a ton of innovation around fertility and birth but very little available to working parents once they came back,” Gulliver says. “They said it felt like falling off a cliff. There was no real acceptance or openness about being a working parent or how those needs continue to change over time and nothing that helped them with that journey…. And we kept hearing, consistently, that it was lonely.”
In 2018 they founded a company, Kunik, which means “nose-kiss,” a name derived from the nose-rubbing greeting in Inuit culture. Kunik partners with employers to provide support to employees and working caregivers through custom expert-led conversations, peer community, and on-demand resources. These types of providers have been on the rise in recent years, but the pandemic has accelerated—and in many ways revealed—the need for their services.
Think historically about benefits related to parenthood, and a few things likely emerge: the idea that it’s largely a women’s issue, that it still centers on maternity leave or access to childcare, and that it’s really only a challenge with kids who are young.
But working parents, as Gulliver learned, constitute 45% to 55% of the workforce. Extend the concept to caregiving of all sorts, and that number rises to nearly 70%.
“What COVID did is expose all that,” Gulliver says. “All of a sudden, everybody was looking into everybody else’s homes. We were seeing elderly relatives and people looking after nieces or nephews.
“Caregivers are the only segment of the population that goes across an organization both horizontally and vertically,” Gulliver says. “You’ll find them across every affinity group, at every level of seniority. But given what a large percentage of the population that they are, and what a cross-sectional population, they’re very quiet. There was so much hidden parenting before the pandemic, hidden caregiving. People didn’t want to be labeled. We need leaders talking about caregiving and opening that dialogue at every single level of an organization for there to be any real change. The second thing is that we need to be much broader and more inclusive about what a caregiver looks like and who a caregiver is…. What a caregiver looks like today is so different from what most companies have in their minds, which is a birth mother in a heterosexual, dual-income home or a father and a stay-at-home mother. That’s no longer the majority.”
Some say, in fact, that labeling the challenges of parenting and work/life balance as a “women’s issue” is actually detrimental to women’s success.
“That mindset has been part of why progress has been so slow in this area,” says Natasha Prasad, the chief customer officer for Cleo, a family benefits platform. “Saying it’s women’s health or a mom’s problem puts it in the corner.” There already are not enough women in leadership and executive roles, and relegating parenting support to a “women’s problem,” Prasad says, “isolates it from executive decision making and power.”
“It’s a family problem,” she says. “And everyone has a family, whether they have kids of their own or nieces or nephews or parents. It’s a much more accessible framing and holistic approach to the challenges that exist.” And along the way, when the situation improves for all, moms are included.
Debi Yadegari, founder and CEO of benefits provider Villyge, says applying a gender-neutral lens to the issues of working-parent support inherently lifts up women and men. “By providing equal support to both working moms and working dads, we are setting the expectation that both moms and dads have equal roles,” Yadegari says. “This will inherently level the playing field and assist women with gaining traction. Of course, birth and breastfeeding will always necessitate a bit more assistance directed at mom, but a shift toward supporting the working parent should always encompass assistance for these additional duties.”
Supporting the Family Structure
COVID-19 has exposed hidden caregivers of all types, and perhaps the branding of this issue needs to change. But herein lies a tension: the pandemic has still been significantly harder on women.
Gallup reported that, as of February 2021, the female labor force was 3.1% smaller than a year earlier. Over the same period, the male labor force shrank by 2.2%. This, Gallup reports, “amounts to roughly 493,000 more women than men being absent from the labor force since the pandemic began.” Further, Gallup reports, there is “strong evidence that many women have left work (and left the labor force altogether) because of childcare responsibilities, and this explains a substantial portion of the gap between women and men, who are less likely to have left work for reasons related to childcare.”
Also of note, according to Gallup: “The types of jobs women tend to have were disproportionately affected by the economic slowdown and shutdowns of the past year compared with the types of jobs men tend to have.” Those jobs include healthcare support, personal care and service, office and administrative support, educational instruction, and food preparation and serving. “Moreover,” Gallup says, “women are underrepresented in occupations that have been largely spared from layoffs, including production, computers, engineering and management.”
McKinsey & Company reported in March that 23% of female workers with children under 10 were considering leaving the workforce in 2020, compared with 13% of men. With school and daycares closed, women—often working for lower salaries than men—have been the more “logical” ones to opt out.
Pandemic aside, Gulliver says, 43% of moms offer up their career within three months of becoming a parent. But there’s another time frame that hasn’t been so closely tracked: when the kids enter elementary school. That’s often the time that learning disabilities and other challenges are diagnosed and when kids and parents need additional support. “That means you’re losing senior-level women in a very vulnerable time of their career,” she says. “There’s almost no help for women to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got something going on at home, and I’m going to need some additional support. I will produce the same amount of work, but I need flexibility and understanding.’ That hasn’t been able to happen.”
Benefits providers across the board talk about the need for mental health assistance, for a sense of community, for ease of access to services, and for inclusion of diverse populations. But they also speak of the need for an overall cultural shift.
“When employees can bring their whole selves to work, there’s more engagement and innovation and productivity,” says Taylor Bridges, a Bolton benefits broker and the mother of a 1-year-old girl. “Benefits are a key piece of the invitation to do that. It’s the company saying, ‘These key pieces of your life, these elements, matter to us, and we want to offer you support in those areas.’” Support for the family structure, Bridges says, “has a trickle effect throughout an entire organization” and makes a profound impact on those using the services. She has seen it firsthand. Back in 2018, while seeking out innovative benefits offerings for her clients, Bridges came across Maven. The digital health company partners with employers and health plans to deliver an on-demand virtual care clinic that assists mothers and families throughout conception, pregnancy and postpartum. That includes video appointments and private messaging with its proprietary women’s and family health practitioner network, as well as a family benefits platform.
Its holistic approach to the comprehensive journey of planning, starting and raising a family struck a chord.
Bridges was intrigued by services like milk shipping for mothers who were traveling away from their newborns and was excited to take those offerings to her clients. She was interested in the convenience of telemedicine, with access to OB-GYNs, physical therapists and other providers.
But it wasn’t until a year later, when pregnant with her first child, that things got personal. She was “elated” to learn that Bolton would be implementing Maven for its employees.
Laney was born in December 2019, and Bridges was slated to return to the office the following April or May.
“Things shifted a little bit there,” she says with a laugh. “Thankfully, my workplace was really flexible. But everything changed around childcare.” Her return was delayed until June. She started back part-time and went back full-time in July, though working remotely.
“I was trying to navigate having my daughter in a small daycare a couple of times a week,” she says. “But it was the pandemic. I was having to be extra careful of monitoring any symptoms she might have. And small children go through things like teething, where all of a sudden her nose is running for two weeks at a time and it’s impossible to know what’s going on.”
One week, a day before Laney was supposed to go to daycare, a rash appeared. Bridges pondered her choices. Should she hold Laney back? Should she take the day off and reschedule all of her appointments? What if Laney were sick and she didn’t act on it? What if it was nothing and she disrupted her schedule when she didn’t really need to?
Through Maven, she quickly and easily scheduled a video chat with a pediatrician. Within 30 minutes, she had talked to the doctor, shown the rash, worked through her concerns, and learned that it was a “very normal” symptom.
“I was able to completely avoid the upheaval around having all of my meetings rescheduled,” Bridges says. “It was priceless.”
Not only did Maven help reduce the time she spent figuring out a solution, but, her mind eased, Bridges was able to be fully present and engaged in the tasks on her plate. Maven was an “amazing” resource for her, she says, and, by default, for the rest of her team.
“Everybody reaps the rewards,” Bridges says.
Sonia Millsom, Maven’s chief commercial officer, says supporting a working parent today means more than just granting parental leave. Such support also means creating a culture in which parents feel comfortable about taking advantage of everything offered.
On the Maven website, halfway down the page that highlights how the organization helps teams balance work and family life, there’s an unassuming little feature: a sliding scale to show the impact Maven could have at one company. One thousand employees? Some 255 of them could benefit from Maven’s services: an estimated 115 planning a family, 20 starting a family, and 120 raising a family. At an organization of 22,500, perhaps 5,758 could benefit. And a company of 200,000? An estimated 51,180.
“I think it is often a surprising number for companies,” Millsom admits. “People don’t historically think of it that way.”
Yadegari says today’s employers must create a parent-friendly work culture, offer manager sensitivity training, and “do their part to ensure an environment where culture meets policy.” On the employee side, she says, “Companies derive greater profits when their workforce is less distracted, more focused, and ‘home’ is under control. To this end, it behooves employers to provide working parents with tangible benefits such as one-on-one access to career coaches, parenting experts, and wellness specialists that Villyge provides. Coming out of the pandemic, companies have been presented with a once-in-a-generation moment to distinguish themselves amongst their competition. Those that get it right will reap the reward and see massive benefits to their bottom line.”
After having a baby, “41% of working parents walk away from their employers, and 99% of the time, manager interactions and company policies are much to blame,” Yadegari says. “This costs employers money. To make it a win-win situation, companies must provide the tools and resources that will allow working parents to achieve their personal family goals while keeping their careers on an upward trajectory—whether that means climbing the proverbial corporate ladder or hanging steady and delivering high-quality work in their current role. That is a need that was there prior to the pandemic and one that remains steady. The only difference now is that companies are more aware of the struggle, having watched it unfold on Zoom and in the headlines. And while remote learning will soon be a thing of the past, the struggles of working parents trying to attain their goals, personally and professionally, will absolutely remain timeless.”
It was Yadegari’s own struggles that led to the creation of Villyge. Yadegari is a former investment banking lawyer who walked away from Wall Street in 2006. After the birth of her first child the year prior, she felt “forced to choose between professional and personal success, and my family came first.” Her departure cost her employer three times her salary in replacement, and when she looked around, she realized she was far from alone in having to make her difficult decision. She’s now a mother of five and believes that, if her employer had in place benefits like the ones Villyge now offers, she would have had the support needed to return to her position in full force.
Notably, Villyge clients maintained a 96% retention rate throughout the pandemic. “Providing support to reduce the mental load, empower the professional, and equip the working parent with the skills, tips and know-how they need to deal with the ages and stages of childhood works,” Yadegari says. “Couple in support for management, and it is a win-win recipe.” Retention rates are high, she adds, because of the loyalty employees feel toward the company for providing such meaningful benefits.
Access, Time, Cost
As working parents have become increasingly visible, conversations about what’s truly helpful have increased as well.
Apiari is a New York-based company that matches families with vetted caregivers in a customized process. Co-founder and CEO Yi-Hsian Godfrey says great childcare benefits must address three dimensions: access, time and cost.
“It’s great that companies pay for their employees’ membership to access providers via Sittercity or Care.com,” Godfrey says. “But the heavy time burden of finding providers is still on the family. With vetting, coordinating, emailing, texting, waiting for replies, it typically takes a family 20 hours to find a provider via those websites.”
Godfrey also has seen employers give employees $2,500 to help offset childcare expenses. “And that’s great, too,” she says, “but without access to great help, employees often just pocket the money and never get the help they need.”
In both of these cases, she says, parents often just end up taking off work or trying to juggle the work and kids while they’re at home, all of which impacts productivity. And employers are left to wonder why they didn’t see the return they expected in terms of productivity, absenteeism, and overall employee mental and physical health.
Part of Something Bigger
There is, of course, the issue of ROI. Some, like Maven, have externally validated the data on the outcomes they’ve driven and how those better outcomes reduce costs. Millsom speaks of reducing costs through, for example, fewer C-sections for first-time mothers, fewer babies requiring NICU, and fewer unnecessary emergency room visits. “But we also think of ROI related to business outcomes,” she says. On average, Maven members see 90% of new parents return to work. The national average is 57%.
Gulliver, conversely, says not a single one of Kunik’s clients has wanted to look at ROI. “What they want to look at instead is NPS score, use rates, and qualitative surveys.” NPS is Net Promoter Score, a metric used for customer experience.
“Our partners are much more focused on what they can do to help their people feel valued and seen and heard by them as an employer, by their peers and by their manager, by participating,” she says.
Gulliver has learned there are three things that keep people at a job: compensation, relationships with managers and their direct reports, and the sense of being part of something bigger. “We can’t touch the first one,” Gulliver says. “But we do believe that creating space for people to have conversations across the issues that matter to them, conversations that drive engagement and connect people to actionable, practical support and guidance, can increase numbers two and three. You make them feel like they belong, like they can come to work as the individual that they are and bring their whole person in a very authentic way, and you make them feel seen and valued by their team and their manager.”
So where does all of this lead in the days and weeks and years to come?
Longtime industry expert Jenn Walsh, who created and leads the six-month-long Account Executive Academy for client service teams, says the industry has some work to do.
Every week in recent months, she says, she has been holding meetings and “literally seeing babies on people’s laps.”
“It’s not a downside to show that families are right there,” she says. “It’s an important reminder that colleagues have rich, complex lives outside of work that, especially post pandemic, influence how they view the investments and sacrifices they’re willing to make for work.”
Providing support, Walsh says, “is actually making investments in people.” The strategic work she does with owners of agencies and firms of all sizes, she says, is to help them begin paying better attention to the ones who are always “holding everything together and cleaning up the messes and filling in the gaps.” Are they more likely to be women? Perhaps so.
“Women, I think, have been more quick than men to be hard on themselves,” Walsh says. “Client-service colleagues, predominantly women, feel intense pressure to keep everyone happy: families, colleagues, clients. They haven’t asked for promotions like men have. They have been reluctant to ask for raises because of the pandemic. And they don’t delegate to their peers as men do.”
Those who have been picking up the slack for underperformers don’t seem to have much tolerance for it anymore, she says. “And those are the people who will leave.”
Not Yet “Necessary”
From a benefits standpoint, services like the ones mentioned can be low on the list of company priorities, Godfrey says, because they’re a cost expenditure. “Until HR, benefits leaders and company leaders recognize how intricately connected home life and work life really are, and understand how increasing convenience at home can increase work productivity, these benefits will still be a nice-to-have and not a mandate,” she says. “Until we crack some basic, fundamental stuff, like paid leave and equal pay, these are luxury benefits that seem to be available only if you work for a Fortune 500—or Fortune 100—company.”
Despite many strong offerings on the scene, Cleo’s Prasad notes there’s “no silver bullet, no single thing, no policy benefit that can solve what is a very large, systemic, societal challenge.”
“Supporting working parents means a cultural shift,” she says. “It’s designing, from the outset, policies and benefits, and how managers are trained and treat their direct reports, how we hire, how we become aware of bias, and how we minimize bias in recruiting, retention and talent management. It’s also knowing that, particularly during the pandemic, working parents have been so impacted and are not all at the same start line. Some will need more help to get to the start line than others, and that’s OK. That is equity.”
Gulliver says part of the challenge is getting companies to view parental benefits from a different vantage point. “They’re still talked about as a perk and not a benefit,” she says, “perceived not as necessary but as nice to have.” But even those who don’t have children should care, Gulliver says, and take note of whether their company treats them as a whole person. “If you don’t have a culture where people feel like they’re part of something bigger, that they belong, that they can come to work as they are, then you’re not going to have a culture where people are talking with each other, innovating or sharing new ideas…. When companies tell us they don’t have the budget for additional parental support, that just means they don’t prioritize it. The data and research could not be clearer about what it takes to retain, attract and nurture your top talent and how beneficial that is to the bottom line. And yet, people still go against it. I’ve been at this for a few years now, and I’m stunned.”