The future of work depends on working parents. Why? Well because more than 80% of parents in the UK are in employment.

And because 82% of women will be mothers by the time they’re 40, which equates to 43% of the nation’s workforce. Yet, despite this, it’s clear that this demographic remains severely underserved and unsupported.

Policies, support, and even attitudes towards working parents have long been sub-standard. In fact, to date, the organisational and governmental approach in the UK has made it near impossible for two working parents to each achieve a fulfilling career. And it’s working mums – as the assumed primary caregivers – who are usually left paying the highest price.

Research by That Works For Me found that although 98% of women want to return to work after having children, 85% leave the full time workforce within three years of having their first child and 19% never return – often because their employer does not offer flexible or hybrid working, or because they cannot afford childcare.

Likewise, when we interviewed working mums and dads about their experience of transitioning from worker to working parent, our findings reinforced this worrying trend. In our research, we found that many mums felt forced to choose between being a mother over having a successful career. Whilst many others said they needed to limit their careers as a result of their employer’s inflexible and outdated working policies and cultures.

But this flawed approach isn’t just consequential for working parents. The UK’s outdated attitude to the working parent agenda is having a sizeable impact on our organisations too. Research shows that retaining women in the workplace could result in a 10% GDP increase to the UK economy and making childcare affordable and accessible would boost the economy by £13bn a year.

So, what’s standing in the way of creating positive change for working parents?

Whilst some organisations now realise the immense value in supporting working parents and commit huge amounts of time and resources to doing so, many others are still falling short of achieving substantial or lasting change. The findings from a report we recently published at WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) in partnership with Hult International Business School (Ashridge)The priority actions for Boards to drive equal opportunities for working parents – have provided some important insights as to why this is.

Our research with people leads (HR, DEI, people management and working parent leads) from public and private sector organisations in the UK specifically highlighted that whilst the government is responsible for some of the barriers that stand in the way of change – such as childcare and its respective costs – many of the barriers are entirely within organisations’ control. For example, the people leads that we interviewed reported that complex policies, inflexible working models, ill-equipped line managers, outdated mindsets and gender stereotypes have all been preventing substantial change.

Perhaps most importantly we discovered that successful outcomes for working parents regularly rely upon the driving forces behind them. When full support comes from an organisation’s board, leaders are likely to be looking towards best-in-class policies that stand out against their competitors.

With this in mind, what is it that leaders can do to help their working parents thrive now, and in the future?

Here are four actions you can take to support your working parents

  1. Use your position to drive change: Your position carries the weight to drive change in culture, policy, and behaviour. Being heard by senior leadership and driving equal opportunities for mums and dads as a strategic imperative will help working parents feel valued, supported, and secure. To unlock the return on your investment from your parental leave policies and practices, it’s critical to set a clear direction and measurable goals for the executives in your organisation. To do this, however, it’s essential to audit your organisation’s current working parent policies, initiatives, and support. This is your chance to honestly assess the gap between expectations and declarations made, and the reality for your working parents on the ground. It is important to outline your organisation’s ambition – what is your desired cometitive positioning and what does ‘good, better and best’ look like for your organisation? From here you can provide clear strategic guidance and communication to functional heads, ensure they are aligned with your intent and then close the ‘say-do gap’. Be certain your actions match your words and align your behaviour with the principles and values you articulate.
  1. Enhance and equalise parental leave: Making it financially possible for both parents to have extended time with their baby during the first year comes with a plethora of benefits for individual employees and the organisations in which they work. Equitably supporting the work of being a parent means both mums and dads – particularly mums – are able to continue to progress their careers when they transition to parenthood. Removing financial stress also gives dads the time to bond with their new child and provide support to the family unit. Ultimately, we must shift the gender stereotype that looking after children is solely a woman’s responsibility.As a leader, you can lobby to equalise parental leave entitlement and make it accessible to all employees, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, route to parenthood or length of service. As a minimum, enhance parental leave for dads and mums to 26 weeks at 100% pay. Document the parental leave policy so those trying to access and administer it can do so with ease and then publicly disclose your organisation’s parental leave policy and promote it internally.
  1. Build an open, honest and safe culture: Building a culture with psychological safety at its foundation, where working parents feel they can speak up and speak out without judgement, will help to break down the barriers to equality within the workplace. When working parents feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to use the initiatives, benefits and support mechanisms that have been put in place to support them. Plus, encouraging working parents to be open until it becomes the norm will ensure they feel able to raise concerns and discuss their individual needs. This is your opportunity to lead by example and be a role model for employees at all levels. Where possible share your own experiences and the difficulties you’ve faced as a working parent. Encourage this experience sharing in those who are one level below you in the organisation to cascade behaviour in the organisation.
  1. Listen to your working parents: Listening to working parents within your organisation helps to uncover the alignment – or lack of – between the espoused culture and the reality for mums and dads in your place of work. Working parent networks can be used as a sounding board to help you identify gaps in your support and barriers to change. Becoming and being a parent can feel isolating – particularly where working parents are in the minority and a working parents networking group can feel like a place of safety for mums and dads to share their experiences and challenges. Give your working parents a platform and listen to their voices, particularly where they are in the minority. If your organisation does not have a working parents’ network, make establishing one a priority. You would also do well to tap into your organisation’s working parents’ network and gather insight and feedback. Try to find out what the mums and dads in your workplace value the most, what they don’t, what they expect from you and how you can improve their experience.

Of course, we recognise how complex the working parent agenda is and it’s important to acknowledge there is no quick- fix here. But we do know that gender gaps in employment, working hours and wages widen after workers become parents, and focussing attention at this stage by introducing equal and extended parental leave policies and flexible working models, will help your working parents.

Ultimately owning, implementing, and embedding these four actions at a leadership level will lead to positive and significant change, both for working parents and your organisation. But, given the influence policy reform has over organisational success, we would also encourage leaders to lobby the government for further reform on the working parents agenda. To make a real difference to the lives of working parents, boards, people leads, and the UK government all need to work together. This is a collaborative effort, and you have a big part to play in this.

Director at WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) | + posts

Helen Sachdev is a founding member and director of organisational and executive coaching practice, WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby). Helen is an experienced, Ashridge accredited, executive coach and co-founded WOMBA in 2015 from a desire to champion and develop the careers of working parents, and combat the negative association between career progression and parenting. Helen is passionate about advocating for working parents and as a parent herself, has experienced the highs and lows of having a family whilst trying to maintain and grow a career.

Helen has a portfolio career, supporting organisations with a social purpose. She is currently the Chair of the Loughborough Building Society, Chair of PPL/PRS Music Licensing and a Non-Executive Director and Remco Chair at WilALington PLC. Find Helen Sachdev on LinkedIn