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Fear of judgement prevent working parents from using policies, support and benefits

‘The priority actions for boards to drive equal opportunities for working parents’ has revealed that many working parents do not use the policies, support and benefits available to them because they fear being judged negatively by colleagues and managers, and worry about the consequences of doing so on career progression.

Although many organisations now recognise the huge value in supporting working parents – and have dedicated time and resources to doing so – many are still failing to see significant or lasting change. A report* has shone a light on why.

The report; The priority actions for boards to drive equal opportunities for working parents has revealed that many working parents do not use the policies, support and benefits available to them because they fear being judged negatively by colleagues and managers, and worry about the consequences of doing so on career progression.

The report is a result of more than two years’ research into the experiences of working mums and dads as they transition from worker to working parent*, and the barriers people leads (HR, DEI, people management and working parent leads) and organisations face as they strive to create equitable and inclusive workplaces**.

Mums fear being judged as ‘less than’ when they become a parent

The report showed that many mums are concerned about how their parenting responsibilities would impact their career. During the research interviews, mums shared their fears of being judged as ‘less than’ – for example, less capable and less committed. Many said this often results in them hiding their parental identities and responsibilities at work.

One mum shared that since becoming a parent she thinks: “There’s a perception that I’ve gone from being someone who really cared and was good at work to someone who doesn’t care. And that’s really not true. I love my job.”

Some mums said they found it harder to navigate the transition to parenthood because they felt unsupported and unheard by their manager. One mum commented: “My one wish for myself is that I get to a point where I can have honest conversations with my manager without feeling the need to get upset. I’d like to talk to her about my career”.

Dads think taking on greater childcare responsibilities will impact career progression

Despite the majority of dads actually wanting to take on a greater caring role – 85% of men agreed they should be as involved in all aspects of childcare as women, and over 90% of men believed it is equally acceptable for both women and men to take time out from employment in order to care for their family – many do not. The utilisation of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) hovers between 2 and 8% in the UK.

As well as SPL provision being complex and poorly paid – which makes taking time out of work financially unviable for most – the report suggests that dads are not taking on a greater caring responsibility because – in common with working mums – many are concerned that doing so will negatively impact their career.

Some of the working dads interviewed for the research were concerned about the impact taking parental leave, or playing a bigger role in childcare, might have on their current role or future career prospects. One dad said, “[my perception is that] being away from work equates [to] me failing at my job… and that was the driver of [a]lot of my fear [and] anxiety…”.

People leads think a lack of psychological safety prevents uptake of parental support and policies

According to the report, people leads across UK organisations, on the whole, agreed that psychological safety – the theory that employees can be their whole, authentic selves without fear of being judged or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes – is critical to improving the lives of working parents.

Despite this, many people leads shared the belief that the lack of psychological safety in today’s workplaces prevents both working mums and dads from speaking up, speaking out and taking up the policies on offer to them.

Some said the working dads in their organisations are concerned that taking parental leave will impact their career progression, largely because it is still not widely accepted as a cultural norm. When talking about enhanced parental leave, one research participant said, “… people can put [a policy] in place but unless the culture can move on, men won’t take it as much.”

Psychological safety is key to building workplace equality

Alison Green, working parent champion and director of WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby), said: “Our research with working parents and UK people leads is strong evidence to suggest that building a culture with psychological safety at its foundation will help to break down the barriers to equality in the workplace.

“Key to ensuring all parents can continue to progress their careers is for employers to invest in considered, family friendly policies, such as equal and enhanced parental leave, structured hybrid and flexible working, and specialist support. But to create tangible progress for working parents, investment must be underpinned by an aligned culture so all parents feel they can use support and arrangements designed for them, without detriment to their careers.”

How to build a workplace culture of openness and trust 

Based on its extensive experience and the report findings, WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) has recommended four strategies for organisational leaders to encourage a culture of openness and trust.

Green said: “Critically, the culture of any organisation, and therefore the experience of working parents, is the responsibility of organisational leaders. It is leaders that carry the weight to drive change in culture, policy and behaviour. Owning, implementing, and embedding these will create positive and significant change, both for working parents and organisations.”

1. Lead by example and role model the organisation’s espoused culture, ensuring this is visible to employees at all levels

2. Share your own experiences and the difficulties you’ve faced as a working parent

3. Encourage colleagues who are one level below you in the organisation to share their experience, to cascade behaviour in the workplace

4. Provide line managers with additional support and training to help them better understand individual circumstances and squash negative attitudes and stereotypes towards working parents. Managers can make assumptions that they believe to be in the best interest of their working parents, but these are often unhelpful and can negatively impact a working parent.

Green concludes: “Without a psychologically safe culture, policies will amount to little and organisations will fail to implement significant or lasting change.”

*published by working parent champion WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby), in partnership with Hult International Business School (Ashridge),

 https://www.wombagroup.com/our-research

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