It's Time to Build a Better Workplace for Mothers

by Rita Health team

The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities in the labor market as well as the imbalance in housework and family responsibilities between women and men. In this article we analyze the actions we need to take in order to make work environments more equitable.

A few months ago a McKinsey Consulting published research that stated ‘’compared to men at the same level, women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.’’ In many cases, this crucial work goes unrecognized and unrewarded by most companies.

The impact of the last year and half on women is still far from being understood.

We chatted with Giorgia Ortu La Barbera who has decades of experience in Diversity & Inclusion in Europe. She helps companies set equality goals and build programs to create free-from discrimination workspaces.

While Europe and the U.S.  are far from being similar when it comes to policy, we hope every reader can find inspiration from this interview, and understand the power in advocating for a new corporate environment where we all belong—and are accepted—on our own terms.

Rita’s team: Tell us what’s going on in Europe with Diversity and Inclusion efforts.

Giorgia: What we call ‘diversity and inclusion (D&I)’ today started off as equal employment laws and affirmative action back in the 1960s. In Europe, there is an unprecedented focus on diversity that is supported by the European Union Commission via funding and policies deployed at state level to foster an environment free from discrimination. The ideal scenario would be to reach the so-called Nordic Model. For many European countries, the first step would be moving the needle and creating a trajectory of improvement annually in the workspace.

The World Economic Forum assesses equality by looking at:

  • Economic participation and opportunity

  • Educational attainment

  • Health 

  • Political empowerment

In its index of 156 countries, the Forum finds that progress on closing the gender gap is painfully slow. In fact, based on the current trajectory, women are 267.6 years away from gender parity in the area of economic participation and opportunity, which includes equal pay.

Rita’s team: How has the D&I industry evolved over the last decade?

Giorgia: This is a very dynamic industry. Ten years ago, the conversation was more focused on disability and how to have more inclusive corporate environments. More recently—due to this top-down push from the European commission—the focus has turned toward women.

A decade ago, there was consensus on better inclusion for employees with disabilities. But when the conversation changes to women, we see more resistance in adopting programs and policies within the work environment. Closing the gender gap also means redistributing the power;not everyone is ready to give up a little to make companies more equal. LGBT+ and multi-ethnicity representation are also themes that are getting more attention thanks to the great example of large corporations but women at small to medium-sized businesses are struggling.

In Italy for example, the government is setting up optional “equality certifications” that encourage companies to receive tax advantages and other direct and indirect benefits.

Rita’s Team: Did covid speed up the implementation of D&I policies?

Giorgia: In the United States, 21% of mothers with preschool-aged children left work during the beginning of the pandemic, but only 14% of fathers did. This trend was observed worldwide.

Now that we are slowly returning to work with hybrid or flexible models, women are again being discriminated. Think for a moment who, in your company, is back at the office. Most likely primarily men, while women still opt for remote options to balance their work with the care of the family. Because we live in a society where companies still believe that decision makers must  meet in person, women who work from home may be excluded.

The pandemic has not only highlighted, but exacerbated these problems without shining a light on tangible solutions.  In 2021 alone, the time it will take to close the gender gap grew by 36 years in just 12 months, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.

Rita’s team: What programs are companies implementing?

Giorgia: My experience is mostly with EU-based companies. They are adopting D&I programs in a phased approach. 

  • Level 1: Maternity policies and benefits - Companies offer services in addition to maternity leave like flexible working hours, re-skilling, tutoring and conversations around transferable skills. 

  • Level 2: The organizational level - Companies transform their organization standards (built back in the days on men's standards of life) into more inclusive policies such as no overtime meetings, no impact of traveling on promotion, offering to cover babysitting costs when a mother has to travel for work, job packages that support caretaker’s costs etc.

  • Level 3: Company culture - Companies at this mature level offer jobs and packages that facilitate the empowerment of a specific workforce with kids so women don’t have to decide between a career and family Unfortunately, on many occasions women don’t even apply for some roles because they don’t feel qualified enough or are worried about deprioritizing their family.

  • Level 4: Evolving paternity standards In Italy, as in many other European countries, there is a  mandatory 10 days of paternity leave to be taken within 6 months of the birth. Men can also ask for personal time off to care for their family, but fathers rarely use this benefit, as many are worried about losing their ‘reputation in the workplace. For women, this is a daily stressor.

Rita’s team: What’s the economic impact of the gender gap?

Giorgia: The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities in the labor market and the imbalance between women and men regarding housework and family responsibilities. The additional demands on women’s time has forced many to quit paid work altogether, making their re-entry into the labor market even more challenging as economies and societies recover from the pandemic. This has exposed the urgent need to address the unequal share of unpaid care work between women and men, and between families and the state, and has underlined the importance of investing in an ecosystem of transformative care policies. This benefits both male and female workers, their children, businesses, societies, and even the planet; making the right to care and to be cared for a reality for all has overarching implications for the sustainability of humanity.


Giorgia Ortu La Barbera, Psychologist & Coach in Organizational Development and D&I. She is also Confidential Counselor for Greenpeace Italy, RAI (Italian Radio-Television) and Sapienza (University of Rome).