What Serena Williams’ retirement can teach employers about working mothers

What Serena Williams’ retirement can teach employers about working mothers

Excerpted from a Ford & Harrison LLP Blog by Alyce B. Ogunsola

On August 9, Serena Williams said “Farewell to Tennis On Her Own Terms—And in Her Own Words,” in an emotionally riveting Vogue magazine article. In the feature, Serena recounts a story of her five-year old daughter, Olympia, being asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Olympia, unaware of her mother’s listening ears, said she wanted to be a big sister. Apparently, Olympia is not shy about her specific requests for a baby sister, even when parents are listening. Serena, the youngest of five sisters, gets it. Olympia’s persistence has paid off. Serena has decided that she wants to grow her family. In doing so, she realized the choice means she is “evolving away from tennis.”

Serena’s next words ring true for many working mothers today:

“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family, I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had the opportunity.”

Even one of the greatest athletes in the world could not escape birth complications (including a pulmonary embolism and postpartum depression). Through it all, she never gave up the game. Serena now finds herself at a crossroads between continuing to grow her accomplishments or her family. She is choosing family.

Serena is not the only mother choosing to leave the workforce. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women’s participation in the labor market is the lowest it has been in 30 years. According to a 2020 study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, one in three working mothers said they were considering downshifting their careers or dropping out of the workforce entirely.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has exacerbated the exodus. Studies show during the pandemic mothers have been three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for the caregiving and housework. Mothers of color have been disproportionately affected. Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white counterparts to be responsible for housework and childcare. Black mothers are twice as likely to be solely responsible for these duties.

Supporting working mothers makes business sense. A 2019 McKinsey & Company study found companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability. So, what can employers do to support and retain working mothers?

Employers must first ensure they comply with federal, state and local laws.

First, employers with 15 or more employees are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) amended Title VII to prohibit discrimination against applicants and employees on the basis of pregnancy and childbirth. The PDA prohibits employer discrimination based on pregnancy in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training and any other condition of employment.

Second, if an employee is temporarily unable to perform their job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the PDA requires the employer to treat the employee the same way it would treat any other temporarily disabled employee. Pregnancy will generally not qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but impairments related to pregnancy lasting longer than six months may qualify and require reasonable accommodation.

Third, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) employers who have 50 or more employees on their payroll must provide eligible new parents (including foster and adoptive parents) up to 12 weeks of leave (unpaid or paid if the employee has earned or accrued it) to care for the new child.

Fourth, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, employers must provide: 1) reasonable break time to express breast milk for period of one year from the birth of the child; and 2) a location other than a restroom shielded from view and free from intrusion. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not required to comply with the lactation break time rule if doing so would impose an undue hardship by causing significant difficulty or expense.

Finally, employers who want to attract and retain working mothers can offer paid parental leave, supplement childcare costs and most importantly provide flexibility when feasible (including remote work).

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