Friday, September 21, 2012

Mom-friendly workplaces. But how friendly?

This caught my eye today: "Unilever Named as Working Mother 100 Best Company For Leadership on Creating Family-Friendly Policy & Culture". This got me wondering what the Working Mother Best Company actually measures. The article cites: "commitment to progressive workplace programs, including child care, flexibility, advancement and paid family leave."
Sumeet Salwan, Unilever's Vice President, Human Resources, Unilever North America is quoted as saying: "It is our job to create a workplace of choice for our employees and to celebrate role models who can inspire the next generation of leaders - those who can successfully manage both their personal and professional lives rolled into one."
The methodology for this ranking as described on is as follows: The 2012 Working Mother 100 best Companies application includes more than 500 questions on workforce representation, child care, flexibility programs, leave policies and more. It surveys the availability, usage and tracking of programs, as well as the accountability of managers who oversee them. For this year’s Working Mother 100 Best, we gave particular weight to child care, flexible scheduling options and advancement programs.
A workplace is not mother-friendly because it has great policies, the workplace is mother-friendly when it implements great policies and programs and delivers results. 
The Unilever North America Profile shows that 44% of hires were women in 2011 and 37% of execs are women, while 48% of women take advantage of flexible working policies. There are also courses in tai chi, yoga and meditation which "have added calm to busy days". This kind of profile is not significantly different from peer companies such as Procter and Gamble, General Mills, Kraft Foods and others. They all cite high levels of women hires, and high levels of execs. However, as a woman, getting a foot in the door and reaching a first-line management position is not all that difficult. Most women are able to do that before they become Moms, probably even before they get married. What would truly worth studying is how many of new hires are Moms, how many execs are Moms and how many Senior Managers and Leadership Execs are Moms.

The Off-Ramps and On-Ramps study by Sylvia Ann Hewitt, President of the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP) published in HBR in 2005 remains completely relevant today. This authoritative study showed that 37% of highly qualified women were “off-ramping”—that is, voluntarily leaving their jobs for extended time periods despite the fact that 93% want to return to work. Only 74% succeed in rejoining the workforce and only 40% returned to full-time jobs. 95% of off-rampers would not consider going back to their previous employers. The 2009 review of this trend showed similar results. Apparently, as soon as women become Moms, the workplace is not so attractive. Childcare and family issues are not the only reason for women to leave the workforce, though it is the main one (44%). Maybe another key issue highlighted by the 2004 study is that women who return to the workforce after time out earn significantly less than their peers who remained in work -  37% lower pay after a three year absence.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan for 2011 tells a candid story: "Our gender mix is not what we want it to be. Although we have three female Non-Executive Directors on the Board, there is only one woman on the ULE. We are tackling the issue through a diversity board chaired by the CEO and by a requirement that the shortlist for each senior job should contain a woman. Since 2007, the proportion of women in senior positions has risen from 23% to 28%. More than 50% of our graduate recruits are women. In principle, the pipeline is being filled, but our task is to ensure many more reach the top levels." This is both honest and realistic, and shows that Unilever understands its task, but frankly, a 5% improvement of women in senior positions over 5 years, to a mere 28%, shows that Unilever has still to find the right formula to enable women to advance, not only because it's good for women, but because it's good for business. While childcare policies and flexible working - and maybe even yoga and tai chi - may help, this is clearly not the whole story.

And now for a personal anecdote: I first started to work with Unilever in 1997 as a consultant. After a few months, Unilever asked me to join as a  full time employee (VP Human Resources). The very week we signed an employment contract, I realized I was pregnant! I went to my boss, the Chairman of Unilever Israel at the time, and gave him the news. While confirming that I would remain committed to my role, I offered him an "out" suggesting we annul the contract, in case, had he known, he wouldn't have chosen to hire me at that very time. His response was : "Congratulations! Pregnancy is not a sickness. There is no reason to annul our contract. Do whatever you need during your pregnancy - we will be supportive." I continued, of course, in my role, worked till my last week of pregnancy, had my daughter and returned to work after maternity leave.  My boss's response, at that time, was completely reassuring and encouraging, and to this day, that continues to impress me. I off-ramped about 8 years later, and became an independent consultant focusing on CSR, but that's another story.

While I have a personal connection to Unilever and a specific positive experience, and believe that Unilever, in general, is well deserving of a top ranking in the Best Workplace for Moms list, I also think that there is still a long way to go to create truly gender-equal workplaces and that this ranking does not quite reflect the issues involved. Off-ramping is a serious talent drain and a big cost to business. The company that manages to break through the blockers to off-ramping will surely reap the rewards, best list or no best list.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices. Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website

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