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Companies becoming more "Mom" friendly
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett
Heather Collins was no stranger to the stresses of working moms when she interviewed for a job in Memphis four years ago. The mother of three, whose youngest at the time was six months old, hailed from a company where she felt guilty for every child-induced absence.

Imagine her surprise, then, when during her job search a prospective boss heard about her family and declared, "Just let me know what you need."

"I knew I was in the right place immediately," says Collins, who snapped up the job as director of human resources for Memphis-based Archer/Malmo Inc., a 110-employee advertising and marketing communications firm. Four years later she's still a happy worker and a happy mom.

Women have been melding careers and motherhood for decades. But companies are becoming ever more proactive as they create benefits that make it easier for women to balance their employee and motherhood roles.

"Companies have realized these benefits are not just a PR ploy," says Susan Lapinski, editor-in-chief of Working Mother magazine. "They really do benefit the bottom line."

Lapinski should know. For 18 years, Working Mother has tracked mom-friendly benefits on its list of "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers." And while progressive businesses in 1986 focused mainly on child care, companies that make the list today offer flexible work hours, programs for teens and "tweens," adoption assistance and elder care.

"Companies are getting better and better scoping out what families need from them," Lapinski says.

Part of that comes from necessity. According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26.1 million women in the workforce had children younger than 18 in 2002. That's an almost 79 percent increase from the 14.6 million working women in 1975 with similarly aged children.

But the larger reason is more abstract. Companies in the 1980s found themselves losing a talented pool of workers who realized they couldn't both work and raise a family, Collins says. Mother-friendly benefits began as a way to retain those workers. They've stayed because "people have that great inner peace about doing a great job at work and having a solid family at home."

Companies that help moms balance work and home run the gamut. According to a 2003 benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly three-quarters of the businesses surveyed offer dependent-care flexible spending accounts. More than half offer flextime. And while large companies are most likely to offer an array of family-friendly benefits, smaller firms have flexibility that their larger counterparts do not. That's most often seen in emergency situations, when small companies are more willing to let mothers bring their children to work.

Such flexibility is what attracted Collins to Archer/Malmo. With just over 100 employees, the firm works with individual employees to devise benefits that fit their lifestyles. After the birth of her first child, one employee began working through lunch so she could leave at 4 p.m., Collins says. Another fashioned her own flextime schedule. And the agency routinely offers extended maternity leaves to ensure employees are really ready to return to work.

At the other end of the spectrum is Intel Corp., the $8 billion chip and computer products manufacturer based in Santa Clara, CA. The global company, which has appeared on Working Mother's list for two years, offers an array of programs aimed at making it easier for working moms to achieve balance in their lives.

Besides dependent-care spending accounts, customized childcare and flexible working arrangements, the company recently formed the Intel Parents Network. That group -- created and managed by employees with children -- aims to support workers as they become parents, as they return to work from maternity leave and as their children enter the anxiety-prone teen years, says Gail Dundas, corporate affairs manager.

Intel also looks for ways to support its working mothers on a daily basis. Among its offerings: 40 nursing mother rooms in more than seven of its U.S. locations. Stations offer comfortable chairs, refrigerators for storing expressed milk and sinks for cleaning up.

"People who haven't had to do it might say, 'What difference does that make?'" Dundas says of the nursing rooms. "But it makes a huge difference."

What's next for working mother benefits? Fathers will start playing a larger role in the mix. Elder care is becoming a big issue, Lapinski says, as are benefits aimed at teenagers and almost-teens.

And benefits for adoptive parents will continue to grow. Already, Microsoft, a Working Mother newcomer last year, offers $5,000 in adoption assistance to its employees. And Bank of America, which has appeared on the list for 15 years, offers up to $4,000 per child in adoption reimbursements among its myriad benefits.

What you won't see in the future is any scaling back. The mom-friendly benefits companies offer are now part of their corporate fabric. Working mothers expect them and companies are reaping the benefits.

"We've been very surprised to see that even with the economy rocking and rolling a bit, we haven't seen a cutback in benefits," Lapinski says. "This is just a good, sensible business practice."


Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today, USATODAY.com, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.