Becoming a mother at 23 was never my plan. I was on the path to climb the corporate ladder, not the path of a human bottle warmer. But as fate would have it, I'll never have the fondest memories of my college graduation. A day that should’ve felt so rewarding and filled with celebration, for me was filled with shame.
I now question waiting until almost 30 family members traveled across the state of Texas to see me walk across the stage to reveal that a degree wasn't the only thing I'd leave campus with.
During my last semester of undergrad, I spent my first trimester taking naps in between classes and hiding my growing belly.
Although I question my younger self’s logic, one thing I'll never question is my perseverance and resilience as a woman and mother. Becoming a mother didn’t slow me down. It made my vision clearer, my focus stronger and my ambition unstoppable. It did, however, change my professional needs.
As women, we are responsible for raising our world's future leaders — our children, who will become the innovators, athletes, entertainers and creators of the next generation. While raising our future leaders, we are leaders ourselves in the workplace, putting in 40-plus hour weeks while chasing both a promotion and a toddler at the same time. So in short, we need more from our workplaces.
Women's leadership in the workplace doesn’t have to lead to burnout.
Part of designing a culture-first workplace means recognizing our cultural demands on women to bear heavy responsibilities both in and out of the workplace. This means companies have a big opportunity to reorient workplace culture with women at the center.
Here are five steps to design a culture-first workplace for women:
1. Reject old ideas. Part of evolving into a culture-first workplace means rejecting the ideas or the notion that processes and policy cannot be changed, but instead asking how they might be changed. Be willing to talk to your women employees about their needs, and be open to new ideas, even if they have never been done. Gather input on new ideas, processes and policies that can help celebrate and encourage women employees.
2. Recognize that women's needs in the workplace are culturally different and that their needs are a cultural issue. While women have been historically at a financial disadvantage, only 40% of U.S. employers offer paid maternity leave to women employees. It is also rare for an employer to offer childcare credits, assistance or benefits. Recognizing the diversity of experiences and assets women and mothers bring to the workplace, rather than perceived gaps, is at heart a cultural issue of inclusion for all companies to embrace.
3. Reward women's commitment and capability to family, work and community. This means acknowledging that women’s priorities can shift. Women need flexible schedules for juggling school drop-offs and conference calls. Women leaders should be rewarded equally as men, compensating them according to their talents on equal par with their male counterparts.
4. Resource. Women leadership produces outsized growth and performance for companies. Women’s paths to the executive level should be paved with empowerment, encouragement and growth. As the purchasing power of women steadily increases in this country, so does the need to recognize and enhance efforts to place women in positions of leadership. Promoting the diverse voices and perspectives of women will ultimately help the bottom line of a business. However, the most important impact comes from the creation of an inclusive, all-cultural atmosphere where women’s voices are valued.
5. Redesign. As current culture continues to dictate more responsibilities to women, recreating an atmosphere with a policy that places women in the center not only builds up your employees, but builds up your community as well. The final step of designing a culture-first workplace for women dictates putting the change into action. Lay out policies within the company and new procedures with the culture of women in mind, and periodically set reviews for even more needed adjustments.
Approximately 5.4 million women left their jobs during the pandemic. It was then that we as women, finally, after taking time to dismount from a churning wheel of responsibilities, had a moment to evaluate. And what did we decide? If you don’t make space for women in a company, we will find another one that will. And that alone is why designing a culture-first workplace for women is so important.
Nia McConnell is the director of business and operations for Think Rubix, a public affairs firm aimed at social, cultural and brand innovation. She is a mother of two and lives in central Arkansas.