4 Ways Working Moms Can Fight the ‘3 p.m. Disadvantage’ at Work

Someone has to leave work early to pick up the kids from school, and that someone is often a mom.

7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Working moms shouldn’t have to make the choice between their families and their careers but, unfortunately, many face difficult decisions every day. While society has come a long way, and there is an increase in workplace resources and flexibility, childcare responsibilities still fall disproportionately on moms. This can make it difficult to get back into a career or achieve the same level of pay women were on track to receive but missed after months (or even years) of time off to take care of their children.

Related: 10 Qualities That Returning Caregivers Bring to the Workplace

When my kids transitioned to school, I started to realize many women, myself included, fell victim to the “3 p.m. disadvantage.” This phenomenon happens when women have to leave early — generally around 3 p.m. — to pick up their kids from school. Almost no one sees these working moms arrive early or the hard work logged in the evenings or on weekends, but everyone sees them leaving. As a result, many working moms are treated differently by coworkers, seen as less committed to their careers and even passed over for promotions or raises due to a lack of visibility in the office at key times of day for meetings and work assignments.

There are 64 million working families in the U.S., and by my back of the napkin calculation, mothers spend more than a billion hours driving their children around and taking them to and from school every year. That’s a tremendous amount of time which creates so much stress and can strain career success.

For my fellow working moms out there facing the 3 p.m. disadvantage: You’re not alone, and you have options. This period of your life — juggling school-age children and career responsibilities — requires extra balance and flexible resources. Here are four tips I wanted to share based on my own experience addressing the 3 p.m. disadvantage.

Instead of striving for “perfect” balance, try integrating work with family.

Working families try really hard to find the perfect work-life balance. However, this is often elusive and stressful because, at least in my experience, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach and the “balance” constantly needs to change. Rather than striving for perfect balance, try striving for integration. Instead of feeling like you need to live completely separate lives — your work life and your home life — blend them where you can and get your kids included in your career so you don’t have to feel like you’re making sacrifices in either realm.

Related: What Women Breadwinners Need to Know About Wealth

When I worked at eBay, my kids were not deeply invested in my work but I found ways to get them interested. I might tell them that eBay was seeing $2,000 in transactions per second and they’d get excited and count along with me as we tallied up the dollars. I also tell them stories about my day and ask for their opinions and help.

Today, with Zūm, my children are actively involved in my company. My son even came up with some of the key improvements in our product. As a child, he represents our customer base and his thoughts are valuable because he’s actually touching and experiencing the product firsthand.

By trying to incorporate your personal life into your work life, you may find that you’re adding true value to the work you do, as well as the time you spend away from your desk. It’s a way to foster creative thinking, make your children feel included and get a new perspective.

Discuss childcare expectations while rethinking gender norms.

Today’s families don’t resemble the family of the 1950s, where women were expected to stay home with kids and men were expected to be breadwinners. Families look very different today, which is why it’s important to consider family and career goals, and also evaluate potentially ingrained gender assumptions and family norms.

More than 41 percent of women in the U.S. say they find it hard to progress in their careers due to childcare needs. More than 10 million women have left the workplace entirely for the same reason. Melinda Gates has called this phenomenon a time poverty gap, which keeps mothers from investing the same time in their careers as fathers.

Connect with your family to find a solution that works while challenging the expectations (your own and others) that you alone are the solution. My mother left her career to raise me and my brothers while my father focused on work. I’m grateful for her love and care, but I chose a different path and I want my daughter, and my son, to know they can have both families and careers.

Related: Why Quitting My 6-Figure Job Was the Best Decision for My Family

Align first on your family’s goals and needs, then work on solutions.

In business school, I learned the concept of design thinking, which is to start with the ideal outcomes that your customers want and work backward toward the best solution. This approach also works in terms of family logistics: Think about what you and your family want and need to accomplish first, and then look to see what resources are available to support those goals.

Naturally, for my husband and I — both entrepreneurs and startup founders — we prioritize our work highly, and so after setting the week’s personal and professional goals, the conversation for us becomes, “Who owns which childcare task?” He’s great at discussing with me the high-level details and doing the research: which classes to enroll the kids in, the best schools for them to attend and activities for their development. I tackled the logistics piece — where the kids need to be, when and how they’ll get there. 

Utilize available workplace resources while also championing change.

While I may have created a solution to one of my biggest challenges, it was only after trying a dozen options that failed. For so many aspects of our home life, and our careers, there are tools that exist to help busy parents. There’s no shame in asking for help, and exploring your resources before you compromise on your goals.

In an ideal world, it should all come down to having options and the freedom to choose how you want to balance your career and family life. The outsourcing aspect often comes into play because not all jobs can offer the flexibility working parents need. To encourage a more lasting change, ask employers to start including childcare-specific benefits: dependent care FSAs for summer and after-school programs, ride-sharing or carpool services as a commuter benefits perk, even conducting family-friendly after-work activities so working parents don’t have to miss out on team-building opportunities.

Until more companies provide flexibility to working parents and mitigate situations that disproportionately affect working parents, the 3 p.m. disadvantage won’t be truly resolved. While we continue to take small steps toward gender parity in the workplace, my hope is that working moms feel supported through enriching conversations with their families and empowered by advocating for themselves at work.

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