01/31/2014 01:20 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

8 Ways Businesses Can Eliminate Mad Men Workplace Policies and Keep Women at Work


There are approximately 23 million working mothers in the United States, and more and more families relying on these women as their main source of income. In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Obama said he firmly believes, "When women succeed, America succeeds." His belief most likely stems from an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the fact that women at work, and in leadership roles, yield positive results for families, businesses, the economy and society.

But a Pew Research Center poll reveals significant percentages of women would prefer to cut back at work or not work at all. Corporate America needs to make some significant shifts in how it operates if we're going to keep these women engaged in work and part of our country's economic engine.

Here are eight ways employers can "do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode" and keep working mothers at work.

1. Offer housework as a corporate benefit.

Women spend approximately 30 percent more time on housework and childcare than men do and research suggests employers reactive negatively to women who appear dedicated to household activities. If you want to free women up to focus more on their work at the office, give them support inside the home.

2. Consider eldercare assistance for employers with caregiving responsibilities.

Often, a working mother's time out of the office during her childbearing years is compounded by the time off she takes later to care for her parents. The average caregiver for elderly parents is a 49-year-old working woman. However, the Society for Human Resource Management reported there has been a decrease in the number of companies that provide assistance to employees in the form of eldercare programs.

3. Change the up-or-out culture.

"My pet peeve is the lack of real options for women of my caliber," a woman with an MBA from an Ivy League school told me while I was writing my book on women and work. After the birth of her child, this woman looked for jobs where she could continue to contribute and add value, but not move up the corporate ladder. She couldn't find an employer who was willing to let her stay "in the middle" and not advance.

4. Make flex part of the culture, not part of the compensation.

Many companies list flexible start times, work-from-home days, and telecommuting in their employee handbooks, but employees know taking advantage of those benefits is actually frowned upon. And many working mothers report being penalized during salary reviews because employers "deduct" their flex options from their compensation. Business looking to get the best of what women bring to the workforce, need to adapt truly flexible cultures, not just policies. That means encouraging and embracing employees to work productively when and where that makes sense for them as long as base-line business and client needs are met.

5. Provide employees with paid sick time.

Forty-eight percent of workers in the private sector don't receive any paid sick days, and included in that number are more than 13 million working women. That means when they or their children are sick, they have to choose between skipping work, and their paycheck, or coming to work and putting their coworkers and customers at risk.

6. Offer paid parental leave.

In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 3,745 pregnancy discrimination complaints indicating there are negative attitudes and misperceptions about working mothers in the workplace. If more working fathers were asking for and taking paternity leave, these attitudes might shift. Women would get more support at home after the birth of a baby -- and men would benefit too.

7. Don't make after-hours socializing mandatory.

Many misguided managers try to promote team culture and create a positive atmosphere in the office by organizing mandatory company outings, otherwise known as "forced fun." For working mothers, these events often have the opposite effect than what is intended. Already away from their families for 40-plus hours a week, not including commuting time, they want to get home after work, not arrange and pay for a babysitter in order to sing karaoke with coworkers. Not attending these events often carries an invisible penalty too. Women can be seen as less committed if they don't attend. If you want to boost morale, hold bonding events during work hours.

8. Change the dynamic around networking events.

Networking is key to career success, but the dynamics around networking can be awkward for women. In many industries, a lot of networking still happens on the golf course and at nighttime events, where women may not feel comfortable, especially if they are the only woman, or one of the only women in attendance. Consider a lunch-only networking policy. And if employees are required to entertain clients, encourage group events -- buy four or six tickets instead of two, to avoid a date-like dynamic.