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What To Expect When You're Expecting The Return of Working Moms: More Office Amenities For Women

After a pandemic-induced exodus, building owners and company leaders are being forced to confront workplace inclusivity anew to woo women back to the office.

Mira Stoimenova, program manager for Women Back to Work, leads a workshop for the organization, which helps female employees with gaps in their résumés re-enter the workforce.

Though parity in wages and representation had slowly, sometimes painstakingly, improved in the years preceding the pandemic, the crisis dealt a major blow to gender diversity efforts, scuppering years of progress.

The working world has been slow to recover. According to Oxfam International, 64 million female-held jobs were lost in 2021, the pandemic's second year. This represents 5% of the total jobs held by women compared to a 3.9% loss among jobs held by men. It is a phenomenon that has economic consequences — consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates a $1T hit to global GDP if decisive action is not taken. 

Amid widespread workforce shortages, those figures represent a setback. But Mira Stoimenova, program manager for Women Back to Work, an organization that helps female employees re-enter the workforce following a career break, said they also offer new opportunities to improve workplace policies, especially for working mothers.

“Definitely there has been some momentum since the ‘she-cession’ started,” she said, noting that WBW facilitated the hiring of close to 400 “returners” in 2021. “Companies are realizing they have to put in some intentional work to attract back women.”

The implementation of flexible work schedules or improved paid leave policies are among the ways companies can recruit and retain more female employees, said Yuletta Pringle, knowledge adviser for the Society of Human Resource Management. Physical amenities, such as on-site childcare or enhanced lactation facilities, may also be in higher demand as women return to the office, she added.

In September, Houston-based lactation suite startup Work & Mother announced it would partner with CBRE to expand into Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Work & Mother’s full-service suites include hospital-grade pumps, refrigeration and storage options, cleaning and sanitation stations, private rooms, WiFi-enabled workstations and more.

CEO and founder Abbey Donnell said prior to the pandemic, many working moms were pumping in wellness rooms, which was a step in the right direction but still posed health and safety risks. 

“Fast-forward to Covid, and [offices] are shutting down communal spaces, so there are no more wellness rooms,” she said. “Now, moms were really without any solution, at a time when sanitation, health and well-being were more important than ever.”

The move to hybrid work meant company leaders were caught between a rock and a hard place — dedicated lactation rooms made less sense with employees coming into the office two or three times a week, but studies show the amenity is crucial to retaining female employees. According to Work & Mother, 43% of new moms end up leaving their current positions in favor of breastfeeding-friendly jobs, despite the fact that 75% of women want to return to work after maternity leave.

Donnell’s model offered a solution — as a shared building amenity, the suites removed the logistical burden for tenants while providing landlords an opportunity to turn underutilized space into a marketable amenity.

“This is the type of amenity that really draws people to the campus, and it can help our tenants retain and attract new employees,” said Skylar Huth, asset management director at Nuveen Real Estate, which owns Four Oaks Place in Houston, a five-building office complex that will become home to a Work & Mother suite in February. “On the ownership side, this lets us be a partner to the firm and not just a landlord collecting a check.”

Work & Mother offers full-service lactation suites for office buildings. Amenities include hospital-grade pumps, private rooms, WiFi-enabled workstations and more.

Abby Alford, director of transaction management for CBRE, facilitated the deal with Work & Mother. She said innovative amenities like full-service lactation suites will prevent office buildings from becoming obsolete as companies embrace working from home.

“Office spaces are competing for uses and places where employees will want to work,” she said. “There has got to be an incentive for employees to come and have an experience at the office.”

The pandemic has pushed forward the conversation about childcare, with national operators like Bright Horizons and KinderCare increasingly teaming up with employers and building owners desperate to lure parents back to the office. As of late last month, Bloomberg reported, Bright Horizons had partnered with upward of 1,000 companies to offer on-site and backup childcare to parents.

New attention is also being paid to designing offices with female employees in mind, said Gracie Andraos, design director for commercial interiors at HKS Architects. Some of these features, like wellness clinics or lactation rooms, already existed in offices but were not necessarily widespread.

“Females and especially mothers value flexibility,” Andraos said. “The policies of these individual organizations need to be evaluated in terms of attracting and retaining employees, and then the design can mirror that.”

The commercial real estate industry has not been immune to gender disparities in pandemic-driven job loss. In a July survey of more than 1,000 CRE professionals conducted by The CREW Network, 78% of respondents said the pandemic stalled progress for female members of the industry

Of the 12% of respondents who said they lost their job as a result of the pandemic, close to 80% said they left involuntarily. Reasons for leaving ranged from canceled projects and closed markets to difficulty balancing personal and work responsibilities.

Barbi Reuter, 2022 president of The CREW Network, said the pandemic set back recent efforts to diversify the industry, especially among women of color. According to the organization’s survey, of all of the women who lost their jobs during the pandemic, 27% were Latinx, 16% were Black, 9% were White and 7% were Asian.

“There is no question that women of color were impacted more severely [in terms of] job satisfaction, desire to move positions or pay equity,” Reuter said. 

Closing pay gaps will be a crucial piece of mending gender and racial disparities that have worsened over the course of the pandemic.

“It’s a great time to do [pay equity studies], because salaries have been everywhere, and people are leaving, sometimes for more money but not always, sometimes it’s for flexibility,” Reuter said.

If companies really want to diversify their workforce, Stoimenova said they must confront biases in the hiring process. Women who have a gap in their résumés because they took time off to raise children are often passed over in favor of male candidates, she said.

Eight years ago, Doris Akpovwa left a two-decades-long career in the geoscience industry to spend more time with her children. After emigrating from Nigeria to the U.S. in 2020 and deciding to return to work, Akpovwa said she had to start from scratch. Upon completing a data science and analysis program at Georgia Tech, Akpovwa began her job search.

Several applications went unanswered before Akpovwa partnered with Women Back to Work. As her job search unfolds, she said she is leaning into her marketable skills as a woman.

“As women, we are able to multitask, and that’s something that is so valuable,” she said. “We are built and ready for that; we are more flexible.”

Bringing women back to work will require prioritization of their needs, Donnell said. Support shown for Work & Mother’s services, not only by female stakeholders but males as well, is an encouraging sign for the prospect of a more inclusive workplace, she said.

“You have landlords putting in food trucks, dry cleaning services, beers on taps, golf simulators,” she said. “If you have all of these offerings at your building but a good chunk of your tenant base is pumping in closets and really struggling, you’ve got to think about the message your building is sending.”