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  • Jill Helmer

In a Time Like No Other, The "Essential" Role is the Working Mother

The time is overdue to address the scenario that has been playing out since March and will continue into the foreseeable future. The scenario involves one parent whose flexibility is “essential.” This parent is currently the “fall back” when schools decide not to open or go to remote models of educating. This parent will “essentially” be the school bus if districts decide they can not transport students safely. This parent “essentially” needs to adjust their work schedule to drop off or pick up their children in a shortened school day, reminiscent for many of what a half day kindergarten model looked like long ago. This parent is “essential” to help younger children get on or off google meets with their classrooms, and to help with any follow up questions a young student has on a given subject. This “essential” parent also needs to keep track of the motivation and progress of their high school and college learners. This “essential” parent needs to do all of this while producing outcomes in their work environment. This parent is likely to feel overwhelmed that there is not enough time in the day or the night (after the kids are in bed and their second shift begins) to complete all of the work in front of them before Groundhog Day begins again.

My assumption is that professional women are the most likely to fill these essential roles. A Gallup study, pre-pandemic, shared this concluding line: “Despite some changes over the past two decades, the division of labor in U.S. households remains largely tilted toward traditional stereotypes. As working women and mothers continue to struggle for equal treatment at work, they are more likely than men to fulfill the role of taking care of the house and children.”


The role of taking care of the house and children has grown during the pandemic to include education and greater supervision of children who are largely not able to participate in camps, sports or activities outside of the home. In corporations, we have been watching this burden grow over the last five months with the hope that the fall would provide a relief and some return to normal. But as the school year inches closer and the controversy regarding the safe return of students increases by the day, I believe it is time for managers and corporations to address the challenges their working mothers are facing.


Currently, working mothers need greater flexibility than ever before. We’ve worked for years in corporations to form Diversity and Inclusion Councils and discuss ways to advance the careers of women. Right now, advancement will be about keeping them in the game. How do we do this?


As a manager:

Start by talking to them about it. Their manager should have the initial discussion and begin by asking if the employee anticipates needing additional support or flexibility to accommodate the school schedule in the fall. Ask how you can help to support them. This answer might be different for each working mother in your reporting line, but it is important to ask and not assume a cookie cutter approach. Ask if there are additional responsibilities that could be delegated to other members of the team? Are there projects that could be reassigned to them to allow more flexibility for deadlines?

Agree to check in on the distribution of work, timing and how it is meshing with the responsibilities of the school year on a frequent basis throughout the fall.

Assign a mentor to touch base with the employee on an informal basis. This would be someone out of the reporting line with whom the employee has built a trusting relationship. The mentor should not report out on the details of the conversation, but he or she should be able to elevate any concerns they have about the well being of the employee.

Advocate for her in front of their peers and the team. If the employee feels like she has a manager and a mentor in her corner, the support will go a long way.


As a company:

Form a cohort of employees who are a resource group for one another during this time period. Share resources with them and allow them to share best practices, child care solutions, and other vital information with one another during these unprecedented times.

Block out two hours during the day which are designated as “meeting free.” One of my clients calls this time period “Orasure Hours.” This break gives all employees a chance to take a breather, catch up on emails, and step away from their computer. It gives employees with school aged children time to check in, catch up on a school lesson or fix lunch before resuming the work day.

Offer alternative work solutions. One of my clients has offered flex hours in their labs in the evenings to enable working parents to alternate child care during the day.

Supplement tutor costs and additional child care fees. One of my clients has been supplementing additional child care fees since the stay at home orders were given.

Organize learning pods for children if virtual learning is the path taken by their school district.

Create a culture of teamwork. You have heard the expression, “TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.” This is a great time to demonstrate that we can be flexible and find a way for everyone on our team to make a vital contribution. If we can find ways to do this right now for working parents, we will surely find solutions that work for other key talent bases in our workforce in the future.


We are in a time period like no other. I believe that many of the gains we have made in creating a workforce with greater gender diversity could be threatened in the next few years. The work we have done to advance the careers of women could fizzle out. Their exit will lead us right back where we started many years ago. It is “essential” that we do our best to address this challenge before it does.

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