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What can employers do to help parents progress their careers?

by Sellick Partnership | 20 July 2021

For employers, one of the key aspects of cultivating a productive, dynamic and committed workforce is to make sure that employees feel supported in pursuing their personal goals, alongside and in conjunction with their career development. When those goals include parenthood, this can create challenges for businesses, but these can be overcome with creative thinking.

A significant proportion of working adults will become parents at some point in their lives, which is why many employers are focused on making sure working parents are able to achieve a solid work-life balance, and able to progress their careers smoothly without needing to neglect their family responsibilities. Being able to offer this flexibility is a key factor for ambitious candidates when looking for a new role, so it is important that your business is able to do so.

There are a number of ways for companies to eliminate the “parent trap” that once prevented working parents from easily accessing promotion and career advancement opportunities. By thinking proactively about how to achieve this, your business can demonstrate a concrete commitment to helping staff to develop on both a personal and professional level.

Here, the team at Sellick Partnership will explore some of the methods that organisations can employ to give working parents the best possible opportunity to make the very most of their careers.

What barriers have working parents typically faced?

Providing tailored support for working parents is a necessary step towards dismantling some of the barriers that this demographic has traditionally faced in terms of career advancement. For many, having children has meant being faced with a mutually exclusive choice between their professional development and the needs of their young family, meaning they miss out on career opportunities they would otherwise have been offered.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the prevalence of the “motherhood pay penalty”, with Trades Union Congress analysis from 2016 showing that by the age of 42, mothers in full-time work were earning 11% less on average than full-time women without children. When looking at the difference between women and men of this age, the gap widens considerably to 34%.

Additionally, many employees simply do not return to their previous careers after taking parental leave, due to a feeling that promotion and leadership opportunities will no longer be available to them. Developing an effective strategy to support working parents means taking all of these factors into account, and then creating solutions that can address them one by one.

What does a working parent look like today?

Another factor that must be accounted for when thinking of new ways to help parents progress their careers is the ever-changing face of working parenthood. Family structures are becoming more diverse and different than ever before, and employers should be doing all they can to keep pace with this change.

In the past, support measures for working parents were targeted specifically at new mothers, including maternity leave arrangements and working benefits aimed solely at women, but this is now changing. Fathers are also now in need of parental leave and support measures to help them take an active role in raising their children, while additional provisions are needed for single parents, same-sex couples and those who are adopting.

As such, it is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting working parents. Because every family unit is different, everyone is likely to have different needs, so it is up to employers to assess their workforce’s needs on a case-by-case basis, allowing them to come up with interventions that properly address these requirements.

Direct support

The simplest and most direct interventions your company can make to support working parents is to provide specific benefits, allowances and support schemes designed to provide staff with additional financial or practical assistance in balancing their work and family responsibilities.

This could include support with childcare costs, for example, or enhanced pension contributions for staff who need to take on part-time roles in order to look after their children. Some companies choose to offer equal amounts of paid leave to all parents, regardless of their gender or family role, while some large companies even provide on-site creche facilities, all of which helps to make these businesses much more attractive for new parents.

Additionally, the importance of flexibility and adaptable schedules cannot be overstated. This has been a key theme of the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the lessons learned in terms of embracing home working options, flexible hours and always-accessible digital training tools should also apply to working parenthood. Companies should be prepared to think outside the box more often about whether senior full-time roles could potentially be offered on a part-time basis or through a job share model, to accommodate a highly skilled professional who is only able to commit to certain hours.

By offering greater flexibility, you can make it possible for parents to develop their own schedules, allowing them to work more and progress within the organisation, without undermining or impacting their childcare responsibilities and work-life balance. You can also open up new avenues for promotion and development that are not typically available to staff working shorter hours. 

Cultural changes and tailored support

This flexibility can go beyond your direct support measures and inform a wider shift in your business culture towards a more employee-centred approach, one that focuses on identifying the specific needs and expectations of every member of staff and creatively developing new solutions to address these.

As discussed earlier, the needs of every working parent is likely to be different, so it follows that the best way to find out what these are is to simply ask. Communicate directly with your staff to find out what their ideal scenarios for working parenthood would look like, and then set this as a target to aim for as you develop bespoke solutions and mutual compromises. The aim should be to offer these employees as much freedom and support as possible, while still serving the best interests of the organisation as a whole.

By embracing the possibilities afforded by a less rigid approach to developing your staff support programmes, you will open the door to more creative solutions. For example, some companies choose to provide their staff with a half-day of dedicated personal development time each month, allowing them to step away from their day-to-day responsibilities and focus on what energises them, enhancing their overall mental health and engagement.

You may also wish to consider implementing mentoring schemes, led by senior leaders who have gone through the experience of working parenthood already and can offer advice to others on how to overcome the challenges. This can be complemented by strong peer-to-peer support, encouraging working parents from across the organisation to share help and advice, and to identify and raise any issues that need to be addressed by the company as a team.

Above all, the key to helping working parents progress in their careers is to create a culture in which the contributions and potential of mothers and fathers is actively valued and promoted. So many of the key skills companies look to cultivate in managers — including emotional intelligence, adaptability, problem-solving, multi-tasking and mediation — are natural parts of parenthood; as such, it makes perfect business sense to prize these individuals for those skills, actively looking for opportunities to bring their valuable life experiences and perspectives into more senior roles.

By taking these steps, you can create a truly inclusive working culture where parenthood is no barrier to progress, allowing you to attract a broader pool of talent and ensuring that your entire workforce feels valued, motivated and loyal, no matter how their life circumstances may change.

To learn more about how your organisation can support working parents, read our advice piece. You can also get in touch with the specialist recruitment consultants at Sellick Partnership to find out how we can help you make yourself more attractive as an employer and access the very best talent available.