In 2014, when Amy Henderson was pregnant with her third child, she started to panic. She was already having a hard time feeling successful both at home and at work. How was she going to manage with yet another young child? So she did what made sense given her training as a researcher: she started calling moms she admired, ones who seemed like they were nailing it at home and at work, and asked them how they did it.
What she found shocked her: woman after woman realized, as she was talking to Henderson, that she was performing better in her career because of her kids, not in spite of them. There was the woman, now an SVP at a successful tech company, who traced the origins of her boldness back to the time she finally insisted on a long-delayed promotion right after returning from maternity leave. Or the software development team leader who found the courage to say no to code she didn’t believe was good enough, even in the face of potential workplace repercussions, because as a mother she had built strong sense of self upon which to advocate for what she knew was true.
The more high-performing moms Henderson talked to, the more she began to question the story she’d been telling herself, the one she’d heard all around her: that having to balance parenting makes employees less valuable, especially women. In fact, the opposite seemed to be true. Henderson eventually expanded her conversations to include fathers, dove into the peer-reviewed literature related to the topic, and found the same patterns emerging: parenting helps employees develop courage, resilience, emotional intelligence, focus, motivation, and ambition — the exact skills essential for success in a twenty-first century economy.
In 2015, Henderson quit her job and teamed up with Janet Van Hyusse, then VP of diversity and inclusion at Twitter, to launch Tendlab, a consulting company on a mission to unlock the power and potential of parenthood in the workplace.
We asked Hendersen to share her best advice for companies to capitalize on the benefits parenting can bring to their workforce while helping parents to truly bring their own selves to work.
1. Stop seeing parents — especially mothers — as less effective employees.
A damaging, unspoken undercurrent in many workplaces is that parent–employees are slackers, less available for their work, or produce work of lower quality. In focus groups, Henderson has heard parents say it seems as though they have to work twice as hard as non-parents for their work to be seen as valuable, because they’re fighting against a stigma; one executive admitted she assumed parents had constraints on their ability to show up at work that limited their performance.
Henderson’s research shows that the opposite is true. “We should be lifting up the skills — like focus, empathy, and managing relationships — that are developed during that very difficult job of parenting,” Henderson says, “and seeing them for what they are: valuable, meaningful, and relevant to people’s careers.” That same senior leader who admitted to assuming parents were lower performers later asked all her managers if they could provide examples of parents on their teams who weren’t outperforming their pre-parent selves. Nobody could.
The mindset shift, from seeing parenting as an obstacle to manage to seeing it an asset to nurture, is especially important because it’s the ground-level experiences parents have with their managers and teammates that most color whether the workplace feels welcoming — and ultimately, whether parent–employees stick around. Tendlab has found that even at companies with generous parental leave policies and perks, if someone’s manager isn’t supportive, then being a working parent can be a demoralizing, debilitating experience.
“What’s interesting is a lot of these parents say it’s one or two comments or actions that set that tone,” Henderson says. For example, when one woman returned from maternity leave, her boss asked her how her vacation was. “She was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I just went through a period of intense sleep deprivation and was in the hospital with my baby for health complications. That was so not a vacation. I’m so offended that you even said that.’” Henderson has heard many similar stories, which are more likely to occur when companies and their employees don’t understand how parenting can be of value in the workplace.
2. Have senior leadership model what it is to value family.
That mindset shift needs to start at the top, and needs to translate to actions. A company can have the most progressive, parent-friendly policies in place, but they’re worthless if no one takes advantage of them. To truly create a welcoming workplace for parents, senior leaders need to show that it’s important. “At one company I work with,” Henderson says, “one of the top executives recently sent out an email to everybody saying, ‘For the next several weeks, I’m going to be leaving at 1:00 pm because I’m coaching my son’s team to a regional tournament.’ Just having the number two in a company set that tone is such a powerful thing.”
3. Plan appropriately for what happens while a new parent is on leave.
One of the biggest problems Henderson sees is when companies fail to plan for new parents being out on leave. “That can make all of the remaining employees resentful of the one who goes,” she says. “Then the parent comes back burdened by their coworkers’ resentment.”
To provide backfill, Henderson recommends bringing in somebody junior — even a paid intern — who can take on simpler grunt work, and letting current team members up-level their tasks to cover for the person on leave. “It’s really beneficial for everyone, because the existing employees who stay behind are able to gain skills and experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says.
Henderson has even seen companies with long-term floaters who fill in for folks on leave — a great training-ground for potential future regular employees.
4. Don’t assume that you know what any particular employee wants and needs.
“I have heard time and again that managers who are well-meaning will really screw up because they won’t just ask what an employee wants,” says Henderson. For instance, managers will assume that a new mother wouldn’t want a promotion or an opportunity to travel for business, so they don’t even ask. Or they assume that when someone comes back from leave, they want to do less work and have fewer responsibilities. “In many cases, it’s actually the opposite,” Henderson says. “If someone’s going to come back to work, they want to do something they feel really inspired by, otherwise being away from their child is too painful.” As each employee is different, it’s important to ask, not assume.
5. Craft policies and attitudes that empower all parents equally.
Working while parenting can be tough for everyone, but it’s especially tough for mothers. A woman who is a mother is 78 percent less likely to get hired when compared to an equally qualified non-mom, and women who have children earn 15 percent less than women who don’t.
“One of the really important and powerful ways that we can address the motherhood penalty is if we allow and encourage men to show up for parenthood in a much more powerful way,” Henderson points out. For instance, when a company offers equal maternity and paternity leave and models a culture of actually taking it, then any employee might at some point go out on leave. “We also know that dads who take paternity leave are much more likely to take an active role in that child’s life throughout their entire life, so they’re also going to be able to support their wife in maintaining her career because she doesn’t have to do all the work at home in terms of child-rearing,” Henderson adds.
The Bottom Line
Like most efforts that allow employees to bring their full selves to the workplace, investing in becoming a welcoming workplace for parents isn’t just a nice thing to do — it can also help you harness the emotional intelligence and collaboration advantages that the parenting learning laboratory provides. Creating a parent-friendly culture doesn’t necessarily take a lot of resources — just a change in thinking. And that you can start today.