Editor’s note: Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is on staff at InHerSight where she writes about data and women’s rights.

DURHAM — When it comes to ways companies can support working mothers, maternity leave is usually the first benefit that comes to mind. Most companies assume that offering parental leave is the benefit parents need to be successful at work, and it’s certainly one of them. But many employers, especially those in their early stages, may be limited in what they can provide. Paid leave costs money.

But the good news is that they are plenty of ways — long-lasting ways — businesses can support working mothers in the office, for free.

Why is employer support for mothers so important? Businesses that support working mothers expand their talent pool. Seven in ten women with children under the age of 18 are in the labor force, and in about 40 percent of households, working mothers are the primary or only breadwinners.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza from InHerSight.

Working mothers are also good for business. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that mothers are more productive than are their peers who do not have children. In fact, the study found that over the course of a 30-year career, working mothers outperform women without children at nearly every stage of the game. Moms are also adroit multitaskers, expert crisis managers, and adept at time management.

When it comes to what working mothers want most at work , it’s not maternity leave or free childcare or corporate women’s support groups that top the list.

What working mothers want most is the freedom, flexibility, and security to be both parents and professionals.

According to InHerSight’s data, the top five things mothers want are:

  1. Paid time off
  2. Flexible work hours
  3. Respectful, unbiased, professional coworkers
  4. Equal opportunities for women and men for advancements like promotions and raises
  5. The ability to telecommute/work remotely
  6. No matter the size of your business, your revenue, or financial position, you can provide all of these benefits to your employees for exactly zero dollars.

Provide paid time off

For parents who work, paid time away from the office is about the ability to care for themselves and families without losing wages.

Providing paid time off is not only about the days or hours offered — it’s about the administration of that time. If your employees need to attend a doctor’s appointment, do you require them to cash out a portion of their PTO? If they need to leave early to pick up a sick child from school, do you require them to log that as vacation time or sick leave? Policies that effectively nickel and dime your employees’ time send a message that that time is not to be used.

Employers are also responsible for creating a culture that encourages workers to use their PTO. And what about the whole no-cost thing? Businesses will recoup the cost of paid time off in employee engagement and productivity, company morale, reduced turnover.

Offer the freedom to adjust work schedules

Another way to support mothers in the workplace: provide them with the freedom to design a schedule that works for them as professionals and as parents.

The expectation that workers will be in the office every day from nine-to-five makes it difficult to work around school schedules, take care of sick kids, or make it to soccer games and doctor’s appointments. And in the United States, it’s mothers who do most of the unpaid work necessary to keep a household running, including 64% of the household and childcare duties in the home, even when both parents work full-time.

Flexible schedules have been linked to increased productivity and higher employee morale, and 89% of companies report better retention as a result of flexible work schedules. Flex time means parents can maintain balance between parent and professional without losing wages or falling behind on work.

If you can’t afford paid maternity leave, provide unpaid leave

Whether or not your business meets the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) , which guarantees unpaid leave, you should be offering mothers the freedom to take time away from work after the birth or adoption of a child without the fear of losing their job.

Like paid time off, the administration of maternity leave is just as important as the availability. Don’t email workers on leave or change their job responsibilities while they’re away. Set the example from the top down by openly encouraging employees at all levels of the organization to take leave—and by taking it yourself if and when you have a child.

If you can’t afford to offer paid leave, subsidize or foot the bill for short-term disability insurance, which birth mothers can use to maintain a portion of their income for the six weeks following the birth of their child.

Provide paternity leave

Paternity leave is good for mothers too. Really good.

In the short term, providing fathers with paternity leave creates a more equal distribution of childcare and household duties between parents and puts a dent in the notion that only mothers are caretakers. Over the long term, it helps fight the gender pay gap.

Data suggests that when a father takes paternity leave, the mother’s earnings increase . Sweden’s Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation found that a mother’s earnings increase by roughly 7% for every additional month of leave her partner takes off work.

And the overwhelming majority of women support the use paternity leave. InHerSight asked more than 3,000 women how they feel about men taking paternity leave—and 97% of women consider it important.

Give them the freedom to work remotely

For parents who need to stay home with sick children, leave early to pick up kids from school, or work around summer schedules, the ability to work from home allows them to fulfill their parental obligations, keep a household running, and never fall behind in their work.

A remote workforce is good for business too. According to Gallup, optimal employee engagement occurs when workers spend three to four days working off-site. The ability to work outside the office also increases productivity and boosts company morale.

Create a culture that supports parents

These policies are only as effective as their implementation. Business owners must foster cultures that make it safe to take advantage of these benefits.

Require your employees to take vacation days. Don’t send emails to employees while they’re away. Take your own vacation days and make it clear to your team what you’re doing. Encourage sick workers to stay at home. If you have to leave early because you’re sick, your children are sick, or you need to make it to your daughter’s soccer game — tell your employees. Modeling this behavior at the top of the company licenses this it your workforce at all levels.

Provide these benefits to all parents

The motherhood penalty is the social, financial, and professional penalty working mothers suffer in the workplace. Working mothers are seen as less competent and less committed to their jobs than are men and even women who do not have children. Working mothers are paid less than their peers. Working mothers are less likely to be promoted and given raises.
The primary reason the motherhood penalty exists is because women are still expected to be caretakers in ways that men are not. This is why one of the top things working mothers want from their employers is equal opportunity. Working mothers want to know their employers do not see their role as parent to be at odds with their role as professional.

In order to change this, we must do away with the expectation that women take care of children and men do paid work.

So for every benefit listed above — provide it to fathers as well as mothers and encourage all workers to take advantage.

Equal distribution of benefits that support parents will contribute to a more equal distribution of unpaid work among mothers and fathers, and will de-gender caretaking duties and recognize the important roles both mother and father play in the life of a family and household.