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When Fierce Women Smash Glass Ceilings, Is It Easier for Others to Follow?

Andrea L.
Jan. 11, 2018

We looked at Fortune's Most Powerful Women and company care benefits to find out.

Doesn’t it feel like more and more companies are announcing new initiatives and working to address the gender gap in the workplace?

It makes sense that business leaders would look at women's workforce participation as a tool to drive growth. After all, women make up more than half of the population, earn more than half of advanced degrees, and represent half of the workforce, but for some reason, they still lag behind men at every rung of the corporate ladder.

Closing the gender pay gap is a path to prosperity. The first step on that path is changing our workplace dynamics.

Every couple of weeks, it seems, a new list comes out. When we read about the best places for this, or the best companies for that, the data and reporting give us chance to take stock of what employers of choice are doing to take care of their employees. FORTUNE’s Most Powerful Women (MPW) list is a little bit different in that it recognizes the business impact of visionary female leaders.

So, when the 2017 MPW list came out, we wanted to look through a slightly different lens. We wanted to see if there was any obvious correlation between having uber-powerful women in leadership roles and clearer pathways for more women to join them atop the corporate ladder. Since the world's biggest barrier to women's equal labor force participation is the ability to balance work and family, we looked at the prevalence of family-friendly benefits among companies represented on the MPW list.

We cross referenced the MPW list with Working Mother's 100 Best Companies and FairyGodBoss's Best Companies for Women to see where the lists overlapped. We also reviewed other sources, notably Paid Leave for the United States (PL+US), Glassdoor, our Care@Work client list and company websites. We specifically looked for evidence of benefits like maternity leave, flexibility and child care, which help working mothers and other caregivers balance work/life and improve in workplace performance.

Based on our review: companies with MPW in leadership positions do tend to have better family-friendly benefits than what’s available to the average worker. But that’s not the whole story.

Here's what we found.  


By The Numbers  

  • 8 Most Powerful Women work at Working Mother's 100 Best Companies.  

  • 11 MPW employers ranked among FairyGodBoss's 31 Best Companies. 

  • 49 of 50 MPW employers offer flexible work arrangements. 

  • 8 provide on-site child care. 

  • 11 provide back-up child care. 


In Context 

Out of 193 countries in the United Nations, the U.S. is one of just a small handful that does not offer national paid maternity leave. Instead, the U.S. offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave after childbirth or adoption under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); but many workers are not eligible for FMLA, and many more cannot afford to take the unpaid time off. Similarly, the U.S. is merely middle-of-the-road in terms of spending on child care and early childhood education.

Where the U.S. offers less in terms of policy solutions for family matters like parental leave and child care costs, it creates a more employer-dependent environment. When it comes to parental leave and child care supports, MPW employers are slightly more likely to provide longer maternity leaves and direct care benefits than employers at large.

Less than 15 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid parental leave, and some estimates say almost one in four employed mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. In contrast, MPW employers offer an average of 10.6 weeks for maternity leave and 3.94 weeks for paternity leave, according to FairyGodBoss data. We were able to confirm that more than 40 MPW employers have some form of maternity leave available to at least some employees.

According to the 2016 National Study of Employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the most commonly available child care supports are Dependent Care Assistance Plans (offered by 56 percent of employers) and Child Care Resource and Referral services (41 percent). Those tend to be less costly than offering child care at or near the work-site (available at 7 percent of employers) and emergency backup care, which is offered by just 5 percent of employers. At least 11 MPW companies provide backup child care for their employees, while eight also offer onsite child care options.

The presence of benefits like child care support and paid parental leave are key to the advancement of women in the workplace because they reduce work-life conflict. They help smooth the transition to working parenthood and provide the peace of mind working parents need to be present, productive and engaged in their jobs. When companies team with an organization like Care@Work to provide benefits like backup child care, it demonstrates a commitment to helping their employees make life work.


In Conclusion 

There is no real conclusion we can draw from this sample. While there are clear examples of women helping other women through refining workplace benefits, it's equally clear female executives are not the only champions of family-friendly benefits and supports.

MPW list makers like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Deloitte CEO Cathy Englebert have been widely recognized for leading the family-friendly benefit movement. But change doesn’t always come from the top. At the same time, recent headlines have revealed several major companies, like AmazonGoogle, and Starbucks, are digging into issues of benefits and pay disparity in response to pressure from employees, former employees and even shareholders.

One thing we can take away from this, though, is that our workplaces need improvements to be more hospitable for women. Through this, we'll reach a path toward profitability and shared prosperity. 



So What Can You Do? 

1. Be a mentor or a sponsor.

According Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives, "men have backers who create opportunities for them," while women often lack such advocates to clear the way for upward mobility. Take the opportunity to be a mentor or sponsor for a powerful woman in the workplace. 

2. Ask about and advocate for family-friendly benefits and supports (back-up care, parental leave etc).

If you want your workplace to be more understanding of balancing work and life, you're most likely not alone. Research what benefits there are, talk to HR about your organization's benefits, meet with co-workers in similar situations, and build a case around the need for benefits.  

3. Build a strong foundation and ask for what you need.

At the early stages of your career, build a strong foundation and network to lean on. Start career planning and learn to negotiate and advocate for what you want and need.


Seeing working women break down barriers is very inspiring and it can be life changing as well because it sometimes lead to a floodgate of others following suit. I am lucky to have such a wonderful team of great women around me who inspire me to reach for the highest good and make the impossible possible. On the other hand, it is very challenging (as it is inspiring) for other women to follow suit once a woman or handful of women break a ceiling. To illustrate, a large number of Americans believe that racism does not exist anymore because we've had a black (or biracial) president; therefore, there is no need to fight as hard (if at all) for civil rights. In the same context, when a woman breaks a glass ceiling, naysayers often spin that scenario in a way that takes away from her accomplishment. That is, they are quick to argue that sexism is no longer a big issue since we now have female CEOs, executives and so on. Therefore, there is no need to dedicate much needed tools and resources to fight against sexism or any ism in the workplace.

In a way, it seems like there is an unspoken/unwritten quota on how many females can be at the top at any given time. Any attempt to break through that quota will be viewed negatively and might have adverse effects on women in general in the workforce. I believe such prejudice discourages many women from trying to break through barriers because they don't want to be viewed in an unfavorable light or labeled negatively (e.g. manly, aggressive, b*tchy, greedy, man-hater, etc.). Basically, it's "tolerable" for women to work hard but not too hard, aim high but not too high, be successful but not too successful, break barriers but not too much or too soon and so on... Thanks Andrea for writing such an informative piece!

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