Why Working Moms Can’t Just Go Back to ‘Normal’ After the Pandemic

working mom

We can’t pursue real, lasting gender equality if we ask women to choose between having a career or being a caregiver

I never thought I would miss the drive home from work. When I first started my career, I had a roundtrip commute that was nearly three hours. I used to race back home with anxiety that only a new mother could understand. I physically ached for my son.

Now, like many moms, I physically ache for space and time between shifts.  My current commute is a flight of stairs. At the top, I am the Chief Human Resources Officer of Verizon. When I descend, I become mom. There’s no time to play music, call a friend, or even get lost in my thoughts and decompress. Just a few steps, and I am immersed in the land of motherhood. 

This reality — or boundaries blur — has intensified to new extremes for working moms during the pandemic. As we enter a year of what feels like unrelenting crisis fatigue, I have heard many people ask to go back to “normal.”  While it’s understandable to wish back better days, but what if normal wasn’t fair or equitable for most? With 5.4 million jobs lost by women in 2020, we need to consider this our inflection point to finally challenge the orthodoxies on where, how, and when we work. We have to build a future of work that actually works for women. 

Here’s what employers must do to ensure we never go back to “normal” as we return to normalcy: 

Retire work-life balance and embrace life integration. 

We need to admit that work-life balance was best-selling fiction under the banner of ‘have it all.’ It doesn’t exist, at least not the way it was sold. Women aren’t just fragments of their work life and home life — it’s the combination that makes us whole. Life integration is an opportunity to develop programs and policies so that caring for careers, families, and self can coexist without competing. 

Accommodate childcare and flexible work arrangements. 

We can’t pursue real, lasting gender equality if we ask women to choose between having a career or being a caregiver. At Verizon, we have always offered comprehensive benefits and policies. However, with the unprecedented school closures, we introduced a Caregiver Leave program, which offers 100% pay for up to eight weeks and 60% for up to 18 weeks for employees unable to work as they care for loved ones. Additionally, we expanded our backup care reimbursement program by removing the caps for child or eldercare. All employers should examine their policies and dial-up their support to keep women actively employed.

Help women climb even when they step to the side. 

We cannot penalize women or alter the trajectory of their careers when they need to pause work to address life. The best way to support women reentering the workforce is to never give them a reason to leave. Offer benefits for employees who adjust to part-time status and continue to encourage development at every level and in every role. 

Turn the volume up on reality across our work cultures

As a mother of four with dogs in the mix, I’ve had my fair share of life raging in the background. That’s why I remind our employees that the signs of life that we may hear on calls or videos—a baby crying, a dog barking, or an elderly parent asking a question—make them a stronger contributor and an even greater asset. We don’t leave our lives at the door when we start our workday and employers need to lead by example by embracing this new reality.

And to the working women out there who aren’t in the position to change the system, there is power in your voice and value in your skills. Be upfront with your managers on what you want, what you can do and what you can’t do. Set professional and personal boundaries to maintain some semblance of balance – do not apologize for wanting that. This no longer has to be an either/or world. It can’t be.

If we do this right and create a future of work that works for women, we not only stand to gain overdue equality but, without a doubt, spark a cascade of economic growth.

And if we don’t stand up right now, we risk setting women’s rights back by decades, losing an entire generation of contributions at the start of too many promising careers. 

Because when women rise, so does the world.

Christy Pambianchi, a mom of four, is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Verizon.