The economy and society suffer when a large percentage of women leave the workplace after becoming mothers.

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Nowadays, mothers with children under 18 are far more likely to work outside the home than in past decades, according to the Department of Labor. In 2015, 69.9 percent of mothers with children under 18 were in the labor force, up from 47.4 percent in 1975. Women whose moms worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, while men are more likely to contribute to housework, according to a 2015 Harvard Business School study by Kathleen McGinn.

It’s truly a win-win. But, as Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book, “Lean In,” 43 percent of those mothers who work outside the home end up leaving their jobs, taking with them promise and talent. Not only is this a blow to the economy, but our society as well.

One reason lies in the “maternal wall,” discrimination responsible for why mothers’ earnings decrease 4 percent while fathers’ increase 6 percent per child. Even Scandinavia was not exempt from this wage gap. It could also explain the lack of women in leadership, impacting who is setting the future model of behavior.

In January, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cut their parental leave in half, I asked 20 mothers what kept their careers on track. Based on this feedback, here are three ways to attract and retain mothers in the workplace.

 Create a culture of flexibility

At some point, we all have to adjust, to care for young children or aging parents, or manage our own health or a sudden or sustained disability. People succeed when they have the ability to focus. When called for, we should be able to work from home, work off-hours and participate in gradual-returns or job-sharing.

Flexibility doesn’t mean compromising on what work gets done, but how.

Challenge gender roles

Equal parental leave moves away from the idea that women are the primary caregivers. Even after parents return to work, challenges will continue to pop up. “Gender roles can play a part in who steps up to cover sick days and doctor visits, as well as the mental load  that takes up so much headspace,” a director of operations in her 30s told me. “It helps when dads/partners speak up about their family life. Setting limits on their work schedules is a start. Splitting parenting and household responsibilities makes the biggest difference,” said a senior economist in her 40s.

Push societal shifts  

The mothers I spoke to agreed that women’s success is based not only on individual or organizational changes, but also on a cultural transformation. It begins with a society that is working to be inclusive of variable lifestyles.

Women are an asset. And as some become parents, they gain rather than lose skills — not only in timeliness and organization but also empathy and community.

Not everyone works in an office. Not everyone has a partner to rely on. There are different styles of parenting and socioeconomic realities.

One size does not fit all.

When it comes to women, maybe the best thing we can do to support them is ask how.

Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore