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Women are rising higher and faster in the workforce than ever before. We’re occupying more senior positions in businesses, government and media. We’re also entering and graduating from college at a substantially higher rate than men, which suggests that this trend toward female leadership and equity is (hopefully) unlikely to stop. 

As a young girl growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, I remember feeling stunned when watching a futuristic sci-fi movie that introduced a female vice president. At the time, she seemed as foreign a creature as the green aliens she and her male boss were battling. I can’t even remember the name of the movie, but I’m still struck by how differently little girls are experiencing what is “normal” for women to accomplish in 2023 than I did 30 years ago. 

Related: Why are women expected to work like they don’t have children and mother like they don’t work? 

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The change is long overdue—and while still happening slowly, it is happening. Young women in the West don’t bat an eye when female vice presidents, prime ministers and CEOs grace their TV screens. These are assumed to be women’s roles (nearly) as much as men’s. 

While this is true for women in general, it’s much less true for women who are mothers. “Ambitious Like a Mother” by Lara Bazelon lays out in stark terms the double standard that still exists for professional women after they have children. Our culture now collectively encourages women to break glass ceilings and go after our highest ambitions—that is, until the day two pink lines appear on the pregnancy test. 

Then, as a 2022 New York Post article put it, there is still an expectation that women become “1950s housewives after they have kids.

A 2012 University of Florida Levine College of Law study stated that bias against mothers is the strongest form of sex discrimination and among the strongest forms of employment discrimination today—and this was eight years before the pandemic made work inconceivably harder and more unequal for mothers. 

Related: It’s 2022, but for American mothers, it’s still the 1950s

As a mother to young children, I experience the impact of these attitudes personally, and feel everything from demoralized to enraged by them at different times. But I’m also fortunate to be a woman in a position of leadership, which means I get to make culture where I work. 

I’m a longtime high school principal and education director, and now the CEO of MARION, a sustainable maternity workwear brand that aims to elevate women by helping them continue dressing professionally while pregnant and breastfeeding. My roles as “boss” have provided me with the opportunity to shape the experiences of the mothers who work for me, as well as the accepted attitudes toward motherhood that exist in my organizations. 

It is unacceptable that working moms continue to be treated with outright discrimination. However, because women (and our allies) are occupying more positions of workplace authority, we now have the unique opportunity to change this paradigm one organization at a time. 

When I became a mother, I didn’t realize I was taking on a new baby and a new mission, but I now see it as an important responsibility to undo motherhood discrimination where I lead. Women in leadership everywhere can truly make the climate more hospitable and more equitable for the mothers around them. With a few simple practices, we have the power to change the narrative and the norms for everyone fortunate enough to work for us. Here’s how to support working moms.

5 ways to encourage support for working moms 

1. Elevate motherhood by normalizing it at work

How many times have you heard a group of colleagues in the workplace “water cooler” talking about fantasy football, or sat in a training or meeting and heard sports metaphors used to explain changes the boss wanted to see? Did you think twice about whether this was appropriate workplace conversation? Nope. Because sports are a male-dominant topic that has been normalized by generations of male-dominated workplaces. 

Have you ever questioned seeing the head of your company walk in with his golf bag slung over his shoulder, or when the senior leadership holds work meetings on the green? I’m guessing probably not, and for the same reasons. Sports have been integrated in workplace culture by a long line of golfing white males who were exclusively in charge for generations. The established culture says that male interests and concerns are valid workplace topics (even if they have nothing to do with the workplace) because those in authority have treated them as valid. 

Related: Women who ‘might’ have kids are less likely to get hired, says new study 

Well, you’re in authority now, and you have the same power to decide what’s valid and normal in the workplace. It’s easier than you might think. When you’re leading a training, swap out the sports analogy you may autopilot towards and use a baby care analogy instead. Chances are, the staff will be surprised at first, but most of them will know what you’re talking about. The moms in the room will likely feel seen and included in a way that they haven’t before. The single childless guy who doesn’t like it? Well, he’s got a great opportunity to learn something about diapers. 

Are you pumping milk at work? Let your staff see you walk in with your pumping bag, and don’t be overly discreet about what it is. I’m not saying it’s necessary to loudly announce every time you’re going to pump, but a “privacy please” sign on your locked office door will be easily interpreted. It sends a strong signal: this is important and normal because the leader is doing it. 

2. Model giving yourself flexibility while continuing to do your job

Culture has trained professional moms to feel guilty for having family responsibilities, and has painted us as less committed because we have obligations outside of work. As a result, we feel pressure to make our parenting role invisible at the office, and feel shame if we have to make any adjustments in our work lives to take care of our kids. 

As the boss, you have the opportunity to change this mindset for your staff through the choices you make in your own parenting. Leave early and go to your baby’s pediatrician appointment if you need to. When you do, let it be known and don’t apologize. Send the message that mothers need and deserve to have accommodations for the realities of their lives. 

When you still give an amazing presentation or land a huge account the next day, you shut down the false idea that giving moms flexibility will result in their poor performance. Silence the critics and show other moms that in your organization, it’s OK to be a parent while also a professional.

Related: Why are women expected to work like they don’t have children and mother like they don’t work?

3. Openly communicate mom-supportive values

New moms need flexibility—to pump, to attend doctor appointments and to pick up sick babies from daycare. As a leader, be clear with your staff that you support parents’ needs. Provide your team with clear systems for accommodating these needs: When is it OK to work remotely? How do you flex time if you need to leave early? Who do you ask for clarification? 

Also, be clear with your expectations: It’s OK for parents to leave early or work from home under the following circumstances, but it’s not OK to be unprepared or not communicate schedule changes. Transparency reduces anxiety for your moms on staff because they know how to plan and avoid getting in trouble. It also takes the teeth out of non-parent grumbling because you’ve made it clear why accommodations are important and that quality work is still expected. 

4. Advocate

Sheryl Sandberg famously stated that she only understood the need for maternity parking spaces at Google after she personally had to walk the long distance from the parking lot to her office while she was hugely pregnant. The pain in her own feet prompted her to create a needed accommodation for all the pregnant employees who came after her. 

As mothers in positions of power, it’s important that we use our own experiences to better understand the struggle of other moms and invest in creating motherhood-friendly systems at work. Crucially, we also need to understand that, as women in positions of leadership, we likely have resources and power that our staff members don’t. 

Related: Motherhood has been my greatest career asset 

Our pregnant custodian or secretary doesn’t get to change the layout of the parking lot when she experiences physical discomfort. Most pregnant subordinates are also unlikely to make requests that benefit them personally, for fear of being seen as poor team players or selfish. We need to take the time to ask questions and understand parenting challenges that lesser-resourced mothers on our team may be facing, and invest in meeting their different needs. 

As our children grow and we get farther away from new motherhood, it can also be easy to lose the connection to the holding-on-for-dear-life experience of that time. To continue authentically supporting new mothers, we must strive to stay connected to their needs through the same practice of asking questions, listening, and investing in systems that create equity for moms. 

5. Make yourself available as a resource

I am intentional about elevating the driven, high-performing women on my teams. I work to build mentoring relationships with them and am delighted to share knowledge and connections that will advance their goals. 

Unexpectedly, one of the biggest compliments I now receive as a leader is when a current or former employee contacts me out of the blue, and asks if I’d be willing to get together with her. When we meet, she never orders alcohol.

She nervously begins the conversation with, “So… I’m pregnant. And I’m worried because I want to keep being great at my job, but now I’m exhausted and vomiting every day, and I’m afraid I suddenly won’t be myself anymore when this baby is born. You run your own company and you’re such a great mom. I just wanted to ask you for advice about how to do… this,” and gestures toward her middle. 

Related: LinkedIn aims to erase stigma for moms with career gaps in their resume 

For driven professional women transitioning into new motherhood, it’s deeply reassuring to have access to a mentor who has been there and who has continued to grow their career while being a visibly committed parent. This is one of the biggest gifts we can give to other working moms: to show them what it looks like to juggle parenthood and a career (sort of) and to be a sounding board for the doubts and worries that come with the journey. 

We also get to model giving ourselves grace when things are a struggle, and being real about that struggle. I am honored when a woman who has worked for me feels comfortable asking me for career mom advice, and I always make time to invest in supporting her, no matter how busy the week. I also make it clear to these driven professionals that they are tasked with doing the same for the mothers who come after them.

It still surprises me, even a decade into holding executive positions, how much power a leader has to establish what should be respected, and how the lightest touch can prompt people to see it the way you do. Signal through your words & actions that yours is an office culture that respects motherhood and acknowledges what it’s like being a working mom. Support women around you who are experiencing new motherhood, and task them with paying it forward. This is how we create a permanent, self-replicating workforce culture that truly elevates working moms.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.