Friday, April 1, 2016

Can Professionally-Employed Mothers Have It All?

The question of whether working mothers can “have it all” has generated much discussion, but less work has been done on how workplace support affects new mothers and families. Even with family-friendly policies in place, do employees feel comfortable using them, or face social stigma for taking time off? What is it about certain policies that leads to greater employee satisfaction and retention? In this week’s WAPPP seminar, Jamie Ladge, Associate Professor of Management and Organizational Development at Northeastern University, presented her work on workplace social support, employee self-efficacy, and job turnover among professionally-employed women.

Returning to work following a first birth can be a tricky time, working to balance caring for an infant and workplace demands. New mothers who perceive that balancing these demands will be challenging may choose to leave their organization. Drawing from social learning and social comparison theory, Professor Ladge investigates how supportive work environments shape new mothers’ decisions to quit.

Much previous work has been done on the direct influence of social support in organizations on employee turnover. Professor Ladge is interested in uncovering just how this mechanism works. Supportive work environments help to mitigate the observed decline in job satisfaction when new mothers return to work, and support from supervisors and spouses plays a major role in decreasing new mothers’ role strain. However, there is still threat of bias from managers perceiving new mothers as less committed to their jobs. New mothers can feel undervalued at work and worry about their abilities both at work and with their families. They key to Professor Ladge’s research is not just how employers can support new mothers, but how perceptions of mothers in the workplace can affect a new mother’s desire to remain in her current job.

Professor Ladge surveyed 695 professionally-employed new mothers who had gone back to their same organization after giving birth. The mean age in this group was 35, mean work experience 3.8 years, and the majority were white and had advanced degrees. Each respondent self-reported on a scale from 1-5 their perceived manager support, presence of work-family role models, and their perceived self-efficacy in their jobs and in their roles as mothers. Professor Ladge also conducted interviews with many new mothers to probe their experiences of managerial support, role models of work-family balance, and re-evaluating their effectiveness as workers after the birth of their first child.

The main link between social support and workplace turnover, according to Professor Ladge, is new mothers’ sense of self-efficacy—the sense that they can “successfully execute the behavior required to produce the desired outcomes.” Professor Ladge breaks this down into job self-efficacy and maternal self-efficacy. New mothers returning to work may worry about their ability to handle the demands of their job while balancing childcare, and may also encounter some stigma about whether they can be a “good mother” while working full-time. However, when new mothers feel efficacious (in either or both of these domains), they are much less likely to quit working. Support from managers and supportive working environments can increase feelings of self-efficacy, which encourages job retention among new mothers.

Interestingly, role models of work-family balance may decrease new mothers’ sense of job self-efficacy and lead them to look for work elsewhere. While this finding isn’t terribly statistically significant in the model, it fits well with anecdotal data. It’s easy to be insecure when comparing yourself to superstars! Professor Ladge is looking to probe this effect further to better understand the impact of role models on self-efficacy and job turnover.

Future Directions

Further research will be useful to determine how these different domains of self-efficacy influence each other, and whether job self-efficacy and maternal self-efficacy are really separate constructs. Professor Ladge is also interested in further integrating qualitative data in quantitative studies in order to better “tell the story” of new working mothers. Further, there’s a great deal of work to do on intersectionality and work-family conflict. Do only middle- and upper-class women have access to supportive workplace policies? How do LGB parents deal with work-family conflict? Another key issue is ensuring that supportive workplace policies are not simply construed as policies for working mothers. These policies should apply to all workers, and all workers should feel comfortable taking advantage of them!

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