The reality is that policies, support, and attitudes towards working parents have long been flawed and outdated. Despite glimmers of change and progression, the organisational and governmental approach in the UK has made it nearly impossible for two working parents to both achieve a fulfilling career, with working mums – as the assumed primary caregivers – left paying the highest price.

Research by That Works For Me found that although 98% of women want to return to work after having children, 85% leave the full time workforce within three years of having their first child and 19% never return – most often because their work cannot offer any flexibility or they cannot afford childcare.

A report we recently published at WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) in partnership with Hult International Business School (Ashridge)The priority actions for Boards to drive equal opportunities for working parents – reinforces these stark findings. Through interviewing working mums and dads about their experience of transitioning from worker to working parent, we found that many mums have felt forced to choose between being a mother over having a successful career. Whilst many others have needed to limit their careers as a result of their employer’s inflexible and outdated working policies and cultures.

The UK’s wildly outdated approach to the working parent agenda isn’t just costing individuals, our economy and organisations are also taking a monumental hit. Retaining women in the workplace could result in a 10% GDP increase to the UK economy and making childcare affordable and accessible would boost the economy by £13bn a year.

Organisational barriers are standing in the way of change

Although many organisations now realise the immense value in supporting working parents and commit huge amounts of time and resources to doing so, many are falling short of achieving substantial or lasting change. The findings from our report have provided important insight as to why this is.

Our research with people leads (HR, DEI, people management and working parent leads) from public and private sector organisations in the UK specifically highlighted that whilst the government is responsible for some of the barriers that stand in the way of change – such as childcare and its respective costs – many of the barriers are entirely within organisations’ control. For example, people leads reported that complex policies, inflexible working models, ill-equipped line managers, outdated mindsets and gender stereotypes are all preventing substantial change.

Critically, we discovered that successful outcomes for working parents often hinge upon the driving forces behind them. When full support comes from an organisation’s board, leaders are likely to be looking towards best-in-class policies that stand out against their competitors.

We recognise how complex the working parent agenda is and it’s important to acknowledge there is no quick- fix or one-size-fits all approach. But we do know that gender gaps in employment, working hours and wages widen after workers become parents and focussing attention at this stage by introducing equal and extended parental leave policies and flexible working models, will help all of the working parents in your organisation to thrive.

Priority actions for leaders

As a leader, the culture of your organisation, and therefore the experience of your working parents, is your responsibility. With this is mind, we’ve prioritised four actions specifically for leaders. Owning, implementing, and embedding these at board level will lead to positive and significant change, both for working parents and your organisation.

  1. Take ownership of the working parents’ agenda

Your position carries the weight to drive change in culture, policy, and behaviour. Being heard by the board and driving equal opportunities for mums and dads as a strategic imperative will help working parents feel valued, supported, and secure. To unlock the return on your investment from your parental leave policies and practices, it’s critical to set a clear direction and measurable goals for the executives in your organisation.

Here’s how:
  • Audit your organisation’s current working parent policies, initiatives, and support. Honestly assess the gap between expectations and declarations made, and the reality for your working parents on the ground
  • Outline your organisation’s ambition – what is your desired competitive positioning and what does ‘good, better and best’ look like for your organisation?
  • Provide clear strategic guidance and communication to functional heads and ensure they are aligned with your intent
  • Close the ‘say-do gap’ – ensure your actions match your words and align your behaviour with the principles and values you articulate.
  1. Enhance and equalise parental leaveMaking it financially possible for both parents to have extended time with their baby during the first year comes with a plethora of benefits for individual employees and the organisations in which they work. Equitably supporting the work of being a parent ensures both mums and dads – particularly mums – can continue to progress their careers. In turn, equalising and enhancing parental leave will help close the gender pay gap.

Removing financial stress also gives dads the time to bond with their new child and provide support to the family unit. Ultimately, we must shift the gender stereotype that looking after children is a woman’s responsibility.

Here’s how:
  • Equalise parental leave entitlement and make it accessible to all employees, irrelevant of gender, sexual orientation, route to parenthood or length of service
  • As a minimum, enhance parental leave for dads and mums to 26 weeks at 100% pay
  • Document the parental leave policy so those trying to access and administer it can do so with ease
  • Publicly disclose your organisation’s parental leave policy and promote it internally.
  1. Encourage a culture of openness and trust

Building a culture with psychological safety at its foundation – where working parents feel they can speak up and speak out without judgement – will help to break down the barriers to equality within the workplace. When working parents feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to use the initiatives, benefits and support mechanisms that have been put in place to support them. Plus, encouraging working parents to be open until it becomes the norm will ensure they feel able to raise concerns and discuss their individual needs.

Here’s how:
  • Lead by example and be a role model for employees at all levels – your position carries huge weight
  • Share your own experiences and the difficulties you’ve faced as a working parent
  • Encourage this experience sharing in those who are one level below you in the organisation to cascade behaviour in the organisation.
  1. Listen to the voices of working parents

Working parents’ networks are invaluable. Listening to working parents within your organisation helps to uncover the alignment – or lack of – between the espoused culture and the reality for mums and dads in your place of work. They can be used as a sounding board to help you identify gaps in your support and barriers to change. Becoming and being a parent can feel isolating – particularly where working parents are in the minority and a working parents networking group can feel like a place of safety for mums and dads to share their experiences and challenges.

Here’s how:
  • Give your working parents a platform and listen to their voices, particularly where working parents are in the minority. If your organisation does not have a working parents’ network, make establishing one a priority
  • Tap into your organisation’s working parents’ network and gather insight and feedback – find out what the mums and dads in your workplace value the most, what they don’t, what they expect from you and how you can improve their experience.

Given the influence policy reform has over organisational success, we encourage boards and leaders to lobby the government for further reform on the working parents agenda. To make a real difference to the lives of working parents, boards, people leads and the UK government all need to work together. Society is changing and organisational and public policy needs to catch-up, fast.

Helen Sachdev
Helen Sachdev
Director at WOMBA

Helen Sachdev is a founding member and director of organisational and executive coaching practice, WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby). Helen is an experienced, Ashridge accredited, executive coach and co-founded WOMBA in 2015 from a desire to champion and develop the careers of working parents, and combat the negative association between career progression and parenting.