[Interview] Supporting Working Parents with Chandra Sanders, Director of RISE at The Mom Project
Chandra Sanders is the director of RISE, the non-profit arm of The Mom Project. The Mom Project is a digital talent marketplace, the leader in connecting highly trained and qualified women to companies that support moms in the workforce, value diversity, and are committed to creating spaces for women to lead and thrive in work.
Chandra, a working mom herself, was laid off during the pandemic and has bounced back to champion women of color and working moms to live their most authentic lives and access economic opportunity on their own terms. Checkr (virtually) caught up with Chandra from her post in Austin, Texas to talk about:
- The importance of supporting working moms
- RISE reskilling and upskilling initiatives
- Changing the conversation around DEI
- How companies can best support employees with children
Let’s dive in!
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that one in 10 working moms left their job during the pandemic. Could you speak to that trend and give us some insight on how work has changed for moms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Chandra Sanders: 2.4 million women have left the paid workforce over the course of the pandemic. Women, and more specifically, women of color, were disproportionately impacted. This impact came in the form of layoffs or in the form of being forced to choose between continuing to generate income for your family and taking care of your kids.
The sudden shift to remote learning and lack of flexibility in many peoples’ jobs—either because of their specific industry or their particular role—played a part in many women either having to leave the workforce or getting laid off. I was one of those who was laid off during the pandemic, but I bounced back.
In February 2022, the Labor Department reported men’s labor force participation was up to 70% and the women’s rate was at 58%. What are the implications of that trend? What does it mean for business, culture, and even society at large for less women to be participating in the workforce?
Chandra Sanders: There has been a dramatic and undeniable COVID-19 backslide in the workplace for women. It requires immediate action in order for us to impact and shape the future of work and the future of the economy. With less women in the paid workforce, there are very real detrimental effects:
Firstly, it undermines economic security. Millions of women, millions of households, depend on a woman’s salary, and if we’re not working we’re losing out on considerable economic opportunity and advancement.
Secondly, there’s a backslide in gender equity. If we are forced out of the workforce, it is very difficult to get back in. For example, if a woman is laid off with 20 years of experience in, say, marketing, and they’re having a really hard time reentering the workforce at the same level, they need to work harder to climb back up the ladder. This work might include pivoting and learning new essential skills. At RISE, we’re working to prevent anything that might undermine economic security and the gender equity backslide we’ve witnessed so vividly over the past couple of years.
RISE works to reskill and upskill moms to better prepare them for the workforce. How are upskilling programs helping working moms?
Chandra Sanders: Upskilling and reskilling are extremely important. Because of the impact of COVID-19, many women can’t get back into the roles that they once had, so they need to learn new skills. What separates the RISE upskilling program from others is that it’s centered around the needs of moms, women of color, and women in general.
For example, many working moms feel constrained by traditional working hours. We have so many core responsibilities—responsibilities to our kids and families among them—so we need roles purpose-fit for us and our busy lifestyles. RISE ensures that participants only have to dedicate 10 to 15 hours a week to the program. It is part-time and self-paced. This is key.
Additionally, many moms don’t have a year or more to dedicate to upskilling, so they need something that can be accomplished part-time, within six weeks to six months. RISE offers programs for moms and for women that get them the skills that they need quickly and effectively so we can get them back into the paid workforce.
“Women and moms are constantly supporting and nurturing others, but rarely prioritizing themselves. RISE is a space where women can come and feel valued—it is a space for them.”
We’ve seen so many success stories! RISE has witnessed women who were laid off learn a competitive set of new skills and get hired for elevated roles. We’ve seen women who needed to reenter the workforce because their financial situations changed at home—even with a husband or partner—do so. We’re so proud of these graduates and we champion their journeys.
Women who join our program receive support and tools tailored specifically for their needs. Following completion, we’re able to place them in elevated job roles so that they can continue to work and feel valuable.
There’s also a networking and community aspect of RISE.
Chandra Sanders: There are a few different aspects to RISE, but the entire program is based around community. Women and moms are constantly supporting and nurturing others, but rarely prioritizing themselves. RISE is a space where women can come and feel valued—it is a space for them. They can lean on each other, build bonds with one another, and through it all we are there to support them—no matter what they are going through.
In this trying and highly competitive landscape, we’re providing moms with resume optimization programs and templates that are proven to counteract the effects of applicant tracking systems, especially if they’ve experienced a break in employment.
We’re also coaching confidence-building because we know this is an essential part of the job searching process. Often, you can have the skills and a phenomenal resume, but if you don’t have the confidence to sell yourself in an interview you won’t get hired.
“Even after being hired, it’s difficult if you feel marginalized or like you’re in the minority; it can be hard to raise your hand and speak up for fear of the implications. You absolutely need an inclusive culture and support once you join an organization.”
RISE takes a holistic approach to upskilling. It’s not just about the certificate. We know that a piece of paper alone won’t get graduates what they need professionally. It is the support of the community, coupled with resume optimization, confidence building, networking, mentorship, and the bonds our participants nurture during and after graduation. We connect participants with mentors at Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies—women who are dedicated to helping other women. Together, it all really makes a difference.
I appreciate RISE’s holistic approach because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, you need many things.
Chandra Sanders: You need all of the things. Again, because it caters to moms and women of color, it is special. We know what moms need, and we offer them precisely that. We want to continue to iterate on and evolve our program to provide resources and community to build moms up even more.
The conversation in the hiring and tech industries is heavily focused around DEI. Yet McKinsey and LeanIn’s 2021 Women in the Workplace study found that between entry-level and C-suite, the representation of women of color drops off by more than 75%. What needs to change to bring more women of color, particularly working moms of color, into the workforce?
Chandra Sanders: That is a tough but very important question that all employers need to be asking themselves. If we really want to see change, companies have to take action and, as you said, the number definitely drops off for women of color in the C-suite.
Firstly, let’s focus on job descriptions. Job descriptions themselves should attract and make room for diverse candidates. If you want diverse, amazing, re-skilled women of color in your talent pool, they may not fit the job description 100%. They may not even fit it 80%. Looking at a job description holistically, conducting interviews holistically, and allowing people a chance to shine as you evaluate their attitude and aptitude to get things done, in addition to emphasizing transferable skills, opens up many different possibilities.
Moms have a number of transferable skills. Moms are the ultimate project managers and financial planners – the ultimate pretty-much-everything to keep a family rolling. I invite recruiters and hiring managers to dig deep into a candidate’s wide range of qualities and understand that a woman of color, who may be a single parent, has to play multiple roles. Ask yourself, “What can this candidate bring to the table?”
Second, let’s look at talent acquisition. They are the gatekeepers to economic access, so companies need to provide them with the tools that they need to be able to make informed decisions on what candidates would be a great fit and allow space for non-traditional candidates. I, for one, am a non-traditional candidate. I’ve never had the same job twice. However, that has never stopped me because someone gave me a chance. I never fit a job description 100% but the reason I got access to economic opportunity was because someone opened a door for me. It’s about being intentional about opening doors to provide access to underrepresented communities.
And finally, companies need to provide real support to candidates and eventual employees. Women of color are very underrepresented, so they may not have the network of someone in tech or even know how to navigate certain areas. Offering additional support by connecting them with a mentor once they get into the door aids their success significantly.
“Workplaces and companies that are at the forefront of the future of work, which is flexible, will attract and retain the best and the top talent, period.”
If you’re all alone—and there have been so many times I’ve been the only woman of color on the job, the only mom, the only woman in general in the tech space—having a support system and knowing an organization wants you to succeed and provides space for you to feel supported makes all the difference.
And let’s certainly not forget about flexibility. Again, women of color who are often caretakers and caregivers need flexibility. I have not worked in an office since 2017 because every role that I’ve had has allowed me the flexibility to take care of my kid and live my life—with all its demands—and perform on the job.
The combination of flexibility, employer support, childcare benefits, inclusive job descriptions, and progressive training of talent acquisition partners can help increase the number of diverse candidates in the workforce.
I’m glad you touched on retention. It’s important to hire diverse candidates, but how are you building inclusion?
Chandra Sanders: Absolutely. Even after being hired, it’s difficult if you feel marginalized or like you’re in the minority; it can be hard to raise your hand and speak up for fear of the implications. You absolutely need an inclusive culture and support once you join an organization.
What actions, programs, or benefits that employers can offer have the biggest positive impact on working moms and parents in general?
Chandra Sanders: The number one thing an employer can provide is flexibility. I am a champion of flexibility because it’s so needed right now, and not even just for moms, but for everyone. Employers need to ensure that the human component of the workforce is not lost. Let’s think about the human experience at work, not just human capital. Ensure that your company provides flexible options, whether that is remote work or hybrid work, in addition to the many other forms that flexibility can take, such as working outside of the traditional 9:00-5:00.
Providing flexibility allows people to flourish and continue to be productive. When you give employees options and nurture a relationship based on implicit trust, people bring their best selves because they know that they’re valued and they know that their company actually believes that they’ll get their job done.
If you’re supported and you have what you need, then you can do your best work.
Chandra Sanders: Yes, you can do your best work and you feel valuable. Of course there’s still pressure, but you can manage that pressure when you have more control of your schedule.
Let’s not forget that we’re still in this pandemic and schools are still shutting down, alongside quarantine periods. When workplaces lack empathy it’s really hard, especially for women and moms, because we often face the burden of juggling multiple shifts at once.
Where do you see working parents and the employers who hire them in five to 10 years down the road, do you have any predictions for how things will evolve?
Chandra Sanders: Workplaces and companies that are at the forefront of the future of work, which is flexible, will attract and retain the best and the top talent, period.
Thank you so much for your time today, Chandra, and for sharing these wonderful insights.
Chandra Sanders: Thank you for reaching out to us!