U.S. track star Alysia Montaño’s latest career move has been dictated by her most important job yet: motherhood. Since speaking out in May about former sponsor Nike’s lack of support for mothers, and sparking the #DreamMaternity movement, the seven-time U.S. champion and Olympian (who became known as “That Pregnant Runner”) has signed with a new sponsor. (After leaving Nike, Montaño went to Asics. The company reduced her pay during the year she was pregnant and eventually dropped her.)

Montaño, now pregnant with her third child, recently announced her partnership with Cadenshae, a New Zealand brand creating activewear for nursing mothers. Whereas traditional athlete contracts are tied to performance, Montaño is under no pressure to return to the track within a specific time frame, according to a release from the company.

Granted, most parents don’t earn their living through sponsorships. But many share Montaño’s desire for a professional role that allows them to thrive both at work and at home. Finding a family-friendly employer can be hard, but Montaño’s recent move gives parents hope that it’s possible.

Official policies to support families

A great starting point for finding out whether a potential employer is family-friendly is to review their policies.

According to Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America, these policies recognize that employees need flexibility. Family-friendly employers offer paid sick time without penalty, whether you are sick or you’re taking time off to care for a family member, she said. They also offer, whenever possible, predictable schedules, employee schedule control, the option to work remotely and a backup staffing plan in case you need time off to provide emergency child or elder care.

Shabo also said that while dedicated paid family and medical leave are important, they are “too rare.” Montaño called attention to the absence of maternity protections in her Nike contract in a video and an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times in May. Montaño said in a phone interview last week that it’s not just the sports world where women need more support.

“A common denominator for a lot of women in [any] industry is that we continue to face barriers that are trying to keep us from progressing [even though] they’re very, very natural things that we are going through,” she said.

A 2019 report on federal employees published by the National Partnership for Women and Families said that increased satisfaction with family-friendly policies decreased turnover intention. It also said federal employees with access to family-friendly policies report increased satisfaction managing work and family responsibilities and higher job satisfaction.

A lack of family-friendly policies led Michael Pirone, a CPA/accountant from Glen Rock, N.J., to leave the public accounting position he’d been in for nearly a decade. Because his employer offered no leave for fathers, he took only two days off when his son was born. But it was the lack of flexibility around tax season, which demanded 70- to 80-hour workweeks, that ultimately drove him to find a new employer. “I realized that during these four months, I was essentially nonexistent at home, and most of my time was spent in the office,” he said.

Unofficial policies matter too

Policies and contracts, however, cannot create a family-friendly environment if the workplace culture doesn’t support it. For employees to feel comfortable utilizing the available policies, “Management needs to provide supervisors the tools to embrace these policies,” Shabo said.

At Pirone’s new employer, the culture is in fact critical. It’s a small office, and there are no specific policies in place, but he says the new job is “a unicorn.” His employer allows ample time off and flexibility to pick his son up from day care or take him to the doctor. “They are very flexible and understanding of anything family related,” he said.

Randi Braun knows how stressful it is when official policy and workplace culture are mismatched, and how satisfying it is when they align. The Washington, D.C., mom of two says her previous sales position was family-friendly, but only on paper: “I was allowed to do things like work from home and come and go on a flex schedule,” she said. But there was a perception that only the moms left early and worked remotely. “They were ‘mommy-tracked.’” Braun said. “It was this very quiet and unspoken politics.”

Braun and some of her colleagues, who were also moms, stealthily covered for one another during bouts of morning sickness or emergency pediatrician visits. “After two years that really wore me down,” Braun said. When she was pregnant with her second child, she walked away from a big promotion to take a sales position at another company.

Braun’s new employer is truly family-friendly. They offer more parental leave, she said, but “it’s the unofficial policies that have been the biggest game-changer.” She now has the flexibility to take a sick day for her kids or arrive late after taking them to the doctor, without judgment. Family-oriented programming also contributes to that culture. Braun’s employer offers a work-sponsored pumpkin carving night and a Working Parents Resource Group.

Caitlin Wolf is a public relations agent who left a fast-paced firm and a one-hour commute for a 100 percent work-from-home position. The Stevensville, Md., mother of two loves that her remote position allows her to spend more time with her kids. She’s also grateful for the supportive community she and her colleagues have created through monthly family events her employer organizes, such as a pool day and a group outing to a Ravens game.

Understanding workplace culture as an outsider can be challenging but it’s not impossible. Here are expert suggestions on how parents can find a position at a family-friendly company.

Find out who the policies are for. A truly family-friendly workplace will support all genders. “It’s important for employers to adopt gender-neutral policies that honor workers’ commitments to their families,” Shabo said. “Creating policies that only apply to women are legally risky and only serve to reinforce stereotypes that hold women back.”

Braun, who uses what she learned from her own experience in her women’s career coaching business, encourages clients to ask whether there are people on flexible schedules who aren’t parents. If that’s the case, she explained, “There’s less stigma there, of ‘all the moms leave early.' ”

Ask questions in person. Shabo acknowledges that for many job seekers, asking policy questions “will be uncomfortable and risky.” While Cadenshae approached Montaño because they appreciated her role as an advocate, most women, even if they’re being recruited, are negotiating job offers under different circumstances.

Shabo says potential employees can keep their questions regarding the culture, policies and norms more general while being careful to “listen and watch for the reactions of the person who is interviewing them.”

Braun also emphasizes the importance of asking these types of questions in person. In particular, Braun advises pregnant women who aren’t yet showing to wait until after they receive an offer to talk about maternity leave and to make sure that conversation is not conducted over email. “You want to hear the reaction that somebody has,” she said. “You want to see the reaction that somebody has. That will tell you a lot.”

Talk to potential co-workers. Once they have an offer, Braun advises her clients to ask questions like, “Can I talk to another working parent on your team?" “Can I talk to a peer?” "Can I talk to somebody else?” Those informal conversations play a big part in getting a genuine feel for the culture.

Check their references. “You can’t beat a word-of-mouth reference,” Braun said. Amber Nash, a Kansas City senior financial analyst, applied for a new position when she was 41 weeks pregnant and her employer was cutting back on remote work. Having heard through colleagues that the new company was family-friendly, she took the job. She said not only can she draw on a generous leave policy, she’s “encouraged to do so.”

When your personal network comes up short, the Internet is a valuable resource. Braun recommends websites such as Glassdoor, List Your Leave and Fairygodboss, where people can anonymously post information about their experiences with a company.

Pam Moore is a freelance writer, group fitness instructor and mom based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter @PamMooreWriter.

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