Jobs represent much more than a paycheck after people have children. Providing for a family is meaningful in its own right, while decisions surrounding professional goals and life at home can have an outsized effect on how parents see their place in the world. That's one reason why Great Place to Work recently analyzed feedback from more than 120,000 employees to rank the country's Best Workplaces for Parents. Along the way, our research turned up some discrepancies among employees that merit attention from any business committed to a fair organization. Namely, we found fathers flourishing while mothers frequently face an uneven playing field in the workforce.
It's good to be the dad
The Best Workplaces for Parents were consistently successful at creating organizational cultures admired by both men and women with kids. However, at other organizations we surveyed, mothers had a less positive experience than fathers, scoring their companies an average of eight percentage points lower on survey questions related to professional development, a sense of fairness, camaraderie at work, and more. This gap is in line with previous research showing that men are typically dealt a much better hand after they start sharing baby photos at work. One paper found that men's paychecks grew by more than 6 percent when they brought a new child into their homes, while women's pay declined. In another experiment, employers were less likely to call back women job applicants who listed membership in a parent-teacher association on their resumes, which actually increased the response rate for men.
"Disparities in pay, expectations, and treatment of mothers still stem from inaccurate assumptions about what they accomplish in the workplace," said Julian Lute, an expert on organizational culture at Great Place to Work. "The fact is, women with children are just as productive as dads. Even if their needs differ somewhat, it's up to employers to accommodate that and ensure the mothers on their teams can contribute at their full potential."
Work-life balance: Important, but no silver bullet
Other studies reinforce the fact that American companies have much more work to do to ensure all parents experience a rewarding workplace and equal opportunities for advancement. While seven in 10 mothers now participate in the workforce, moms surveyed by the Pew Research Center were still twice as likely as their male counterparts to feel that parenthood makes it harder to grow in their careers. Our research showed that this problem runs much deeper than the solutions most companies reach for when trying to improve their retention of employees with children. Work-life balance, for example, is the focus of most family-centered benefits, like parental leave and flexible scheduling. Yet, as critical as these programs are, our research showed that co-workers’ experience of balance was among the least influential traits in determining how highly parents regarded their workplaces overall.
In fact, our data in this area suggest work-life balance and time off influence the experience of non-parents just as much as their colleagues with kids. Managers can improve benefits to this end knowing it will enhance their entire workforce, and not just employees modifying their hours to accommodate childcare. While they appreciate PTO, moms and dads on the job are mostly concerned with the same professional issues as anyone else: fair treatment, trustworthy management, career development, and help from the organization when they need it.
"I don't think parents are looking for any special treatment," said Great Place to Work senior consultant Jonathan Becker. "The success of the Best Workplaces has a lot to do with how generally supportive and flexible they are and how much their people look out for each other."
More women executives = a better workplace
Another noteworthy relationship to emerge from our analysis of leading employers was a correlation between women in executive positions and high-trust workplaces. The parents we surveyed had more positive experiences at work when women held at least half of the company’s executive positions. Notably, having more women in the C-suite wasn’t just attractive to employees with children. Both parents and non-parents alike reported better workplace experiences related to favoritism, leadership follow-through on promises, office politics, and career advancement when more women held executive positions.
Our research often shows that having an equitable organization benefits employees up and down the chain of command. At the same time, the Best Workplaces for Parents illustrate that mothers and fathers want the same things from a company as their colleagues—a fair and trusting work environment. The biggest difference for parents is the stakes, as they face the demands of family life while relying on their employers to ensure responsibilities at home won't compromise their professional standing or opportunities at work.
Sarah Lewis-Kulin and Jessica Rohman are vice president and director of content, respectively, at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other best workplaces lists, including the Best Workplaces for Parents.