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Four things Massachusetts employers should do for working parents

The Commonwealth got a C- on a major report, thanks to family leave practices, failure to promote women, and child-care costs.

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As a woman, mother, and chief executive working to empower and advance women in business, I’ve seen far too many companies in Massachusetts holding women back. Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it’s not. One CEO “jokingly” said he has enough women at home and doesn’t need more at the office. I’ve been told by senior leaders that they already “have a lot of women here,” except not one of those women was a senior manager or executive, or on track to become one.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research gave our state a C- for work and family issues, which ranks us 24th nationally. That rating reflects access to paid leave to care for a child or family member, the gender gap in numbers of women and men with kids under 6 and jobs, and child-care concerns such as cost and preschool enrollment.

Improving our state’s grade requires action by private citizens and civic leaders alike. But Massachusetts companies are crucial to this effort. Here’s what our businesses need to focus on.

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1. Paid family leave. Nearly one in four Americans has taken leave from work to care for a family member with a serious health condition. But advocacy group RaiseUp Massachusetts reports that 87 percent of workers in New England do not have access to paid leave. In Massachusetts, 1.2 million workers risk losing their jobs if they take time off from work for a family medical emergency or a new child.

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Paid leave for women helps them remain in the labor force. Paid leave for men helps address the unequal division of caregiving tasks between women and men and reduces gender stereotypes that can lead to discrimination against women. More businesses should follow the example of Cengage, a Boston digital learning solutions company that last year began offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave. (Cengage previously gave the primary caregiver eight weeks off, versus one week for the other parent.)

2. Greater child-care flexibility. More mothers are in the workforce today than ever before. But the Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranks Massachusetts in the bottom third of the nation for child-care support, with costs to the parent among the highest in the country. These rankings reflect in part the cost of infant care as a percentage of a woman’s median annual earnings (a whopping 34.1 percent in Massachusetts) and annual cost of child care. According to IWPR economist Ariane Hegewisch, the stress and financial burden of child care is often why many new moms struggle to get ahead in the workplace.

State and federal mandates can only do so much. More employers need to provide onsite child-care services, subsidize expenses, and offer flexible schedules — especially for women returning from maternity leave.

Bedford-based iRobot, for example, recently began offering full-time employees 14 weeks of fully paid maternity leave. And among other benefits, mothers in their first month back from maternity leave work only 24 hours a week but get paid for 40. After listening to feedback from its employees, Fidelity Investments, a client of my consulting firm reacHIRE, has extended parental leaves over the past three years, including foster care and surrogate leave, and doubled family care leave.

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3. Involved and invested men. Since men hold the vast majority of senior roles, we need senior male leaders to reach down and pull promising female professionals along. In her book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, says women typically have three times as many mentors as men but only half as many “sponsors” — individuals who actively advocate for one’s promotion or raise.

Making matters worse is that men don’t always see the problem. According to management consultant McKinsey & Company, nearly 50 percent of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in 10 senior leaders is female.

Boston’s Liberty Mutual Insurance is one area business taking action on this front. In a historically male-dominated industry, women make up 50 percent of the company’s front-line managers and 30 percent of its board of directors. The company also organized a one-day “Men as Allies” Summit in December attended by more than 450 male and female employees, which has fostered further discussions as well as related employee events.

4. Concrete programs to promote women. I work with companies that are committed to making their workforces more diverse and help them hire women returning after a career break. These companies understand they need women at the mid-management level and that those returning to work are a great resource to fill that pipeline. But more companies need to recognize the key is investing in and promoting women much earlier in their careers and nurturing the talent they’ve worked so hard to recruit.

Doing so would only improve their bottom line. McKinsey says achieving gender parity can bring an additional $73 billion to the Massachusetts economy by 2025. And recent research found that companies with more women are more innovative, resilient, and productive.

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My client Boston Scientific gets it. The company has instituted accelerated development programs for women and continues to build its talent pipeline through targeted recruiting. Women now hold 42.9 percent of salaried positions.

The only way businesses will have more women leaders is if they interview more women for leadership positions. This means having more women in the pipeline. The only way companies will improve diversity and pay equity is through public commitment, transparency, and vigilance. And the only way men and women will get more work flexibility and family support is by requesting it and using it.

Job seekers, both men and women, need to ask companies about these issues and hold them accountable. The forward-thinking, successful companies will have a lot to say. The others won’t make the grade.

Addie Swartz is CEO and founder of reacHIRE, a gender-focused workforce consultancy in Concord. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.

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