Do You Need Permission to Start a Family?

Five steps for female executives for managing maternity leave

women-families-vertHaving a baby is perhaps the most special time in a woman’s life. As senior-level executives, however, elation is often counterbalanced with a stressful countdown that includes assuring the boss that everything will run smoothly in your absence, negotiating a maternity leave compensation package and managing a team from a far.

I know this all too well.

At eight months pregnant, my belly is taut, my second child is dropping down into position and I’m preparing to temporarily shift out of the workplace and into new motherhood again. I am, Black, am 36 years old, have married for 9 years, am the mother of a three-year-old, have been named the next CEO of DiversityInc and, to some, am established.

Seems nice, right? It wasn’t always that way.

When I was 30, my boss, who is my mentor and sponsor — and, quite frankly, an older white guy who keeps it real and gives me insights into his world I would never get otherwise — started talking with me about children and said, “You would be a great mom.” It was like the pill scene from the movie “The Matrix” when the main character realizes the life he was living wasn’t what he thought.

In that moment, I came to the realization that my career goals, my extreme need to be independent and my responsibilities related to my parents had subconsciously prevented me from even dreaming about being a mother.

To me, children meant losing my place in line in the workplace, which would prevent me from taking care of myself and my responsibilities. Also in that moment, I caught a whiff of the idea that I could have it all. I, like most women, play by the rules. I needed to hear my CEO say it was okay to have children. It meant I would not lose my place in line.

I had my first child two years later.

Employers need to have a better understanding of how to navigate situations like this, especially with their women employees who want to continue to be dedicated to their families without sacrificing their career trajectory.

According to an analysis of the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies there are three factors that make a company a great place for women to reach their full potential:

  • Strong, cross-cultural mentoring programs with a high level of senior-executive involvement
  • Active women’s employee resource groups, used for recruitment, engagement, leadership training and talent development
  • Flexible workplaces, usually with individualized programs

To reach that level, employers need to recognize the value of their high potentials and offer fully supportive environments. In addition, women must ask for what they want.

Luckily for some, a few companies have taken the needs of working parents seriously, including many of the Top 50 companies. For example, 100 percent of the Top 50 companies offer telecommuting/flexible hours, compared to 59 percent of the national average.

women-families-quoteThe smartest companies don’t wait for an exit interview. AT&T (No. 4 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity) has “stay” interviews. “One of the purposes of our stay interviews is dealing with the whole person,” said Cynt Marshall, senior vice president and chief diversity officer — human resources at AT&T. “We have an open conversation and talking about family balance is a huge part of that. We ask for advice on how to make working here better and we even have a team of women review our flexible work policy on a regular basis to make sure we are not missing anything. This benefits all of our employees.” These diversity initiatives lead to companies where women with families return to the workplace, stay longer and get promoted more often.

Clearly, employers have a huge role to play in making this transition as smooth as possible. But what can women do on their end to properly manage maternity leave?

Here are five steps based on my own experiences and also from the research we’ve done at DiversityInc:

Step 1: Talk to your boss.

No one wants to have to ask the boss’s permission for making one of the biggest and most personal decisions in your life. For me, it was a necessary conversation. I trust my boss and, as his second in command, he relies on me a great deal. The fear of losing your place at work is a very real problem young women face and is one of the main reasons many opt out of extreme career tracks.

Your immediate boss should be informed first. If you report to a team of managers, try to do it in one meeting. Discussing maternity leave should happen before the pregnancy becomes public knowledge (most women wait until after the third trimester).

When managers hear the words, “I’m pregnant,” they may express mixed emotions. While an employer should never blurt out, “Does this mean you’re leaving us?” as such comments can be viewed as discriminatory, they may have concerns about scheduling, responsibilities and retention. Employers should suggest that employees speak to HR and discuss their Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights, while employees should gather information.

Step 2: Find out what you’re entitled to receive.

Under the FMLA of 1993, qualifying American parents are guaranteed 12 weeks of family leave to care for a newborn. The law requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide new parents with 12 weeks of leave, but it doesn’t require the leave to be paid.

According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Labor on family and medical leave, about 15 percent of people who were not paid or who received partial pay while on leave turned to public assistance for help. About 60 percent of workers who took this leave reported it was difficult making ends meet, and almost half reported they would have taken more time if it was paid leave.

Companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture and KPMG (Nos. 5, 15 and 16, respectively) have generous maternity-leave policies and offer paternity leave and adoption leave. In fact, Accenture announced last year that it was offering up to 16 weeks of paid leave for full- and part-time U.S. workers — double the original time period.

Some of the positive effects of paid leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, include:

  • Improved child health outcomes and increased birthweight
  • Decreases in premature birth and infant mortality
  • An increase in men taking paternity leave and serving as good caregivers
  • An increase in retention

 

All maternity leave is not equal, so find out what you’re entitled to by reading the employee handbook and working the grapevine to uncover the “unofficial” deals that other mothers have negotiated. To qualify for FMLA, you must work for a company that employs at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius. For your part, you need to have worked for the company a minimum of 12 months and 1,250 hours.

Step 3: Negotiate your maternity leave.

Women are paid, on average, 78.6 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the latest U.S. Census. The gender pay gap may be smaller in the corner office, but the biggest issue, according to the most enterprising companies in the Top 50, is in negotiating.

women-families-2Many women are strong dealmakers, but when it comes to personal matters, they are afraid to ask for more. A Columbia Business School study in 2011 published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association found women conceded 20 percent of the total value of their salary in the first round of negotiations.

The same way you would sit down with your boss and ask for the moon in hopes of landing the stars at promotion time, enact a similar approach when negotiating maternity leave compensation. 

Consider these questions:

  1. What is the company offering?
  2. What are their expectations, if any, of you while you are out of the office?
  3. Will you continue to receive your regular pay or will you receive a combination of short-term disability, vacation time, sick leave, personal days and unpaid family medical leave benefits?
  4. Once you return, will you be coming back at the same level and managing the same team?
  5. If you need to return earlier than anticipated, is that something you’re willing to do?
  6. What are you willing to give or do while on maternity leave?

Studies say women can be perceived as greedy and demanding during a negotiation. Reframe the conversation from a battle to a win-win. If the relationship you have with your boss or the company is very dependent on you, then that’s your bargaining chip. Once confirmed, get everything in writing.

Step 4: Get your plan in place.

From the moment that I knew I was pregnant, I started building my maternity leave plan. For my own sanity, I’m never totally out of the picture.

During my first pregnancy, I wasn’t there to write, complete or process things myself, but I still identified every person who was responsible to get them done, how they should be done and the frequency they had to be done.

At our check-ins, I had team members provide updates. Then I made sure my CEO had the information. I once told him point blank: “Listen, you’re going to have to make sure you’re on them because the fact that you travel a lot can be seen as a pass for them to be laid back. You must check in.”

I also sat with my team to discuss a detailed list of my current responsibilities that I would be turning over to them while out on maternity leave. Once they were clear, I confirmed with a written memo.

This time around, to keep the lines of communication open, I’ll be a lot more involved in the day-to-day while I’m out so that it doesn’t get uncomfortable when I return. Even though I interacted with my team via email during the first pregnancy, it was weird. Upon my return, I noticed they weren’t as communicative.

I live close to the office, so I’ll actually have my direct reports come to my house for weekly meetings. Everyone doesn’t have that opportunity, but with GoToMeeting and conference calls, you own the option of being able to communicate with people. I choose to do some work during my leave, but employees are not required to work while on FMLA or short-term disability.

When high potentials have a rock-solid maternity or paternity plan in place, that’s good for business.

According to Ellen Williams, assistant director of diversity & inclusiveness at EY (No. 3), “Early on our journey, which started back in the 1990s, we began working with moms to provide work-life balance. Today, we focus on offering flexibility to all our people.” By creating an environment for work-life balance, she notes, “we meet the needs of our employees.”

Step 5: Understand what balance means to your family.

In my head, balance means everything is equal and nothing is failing. It’s impossible. “You must have a deliberate conversation with your partner about how you are going to parent, how that impacts how you run your household and be honest about what your support system looks like,” Marshall said. We engaged a nanny much earlier this time so that it will give me time to enjoy my new bundle of joy while juggling work responsibilities.

Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in the Superwoman Syndrome, especially because in my boss’s mind, I did such a phenomenal job doing the baby thing, coming back and not missing a beat that he says, “Oh Carolynn, you can do anything!” Instantly, I think, “Oh hell.”

Some of the most successful women I know say, “You have to get comfortable knowing that things are going to go wrong but care enough and be paying enough attention to get back to it when it needs TLC.”

Too often, women are trying so hard to be the go-to girl that they’re not being innovative and not leading; they’re just taking orders and marching. The multitasking — caring for the baby, eating a bagel and checking email — doesn’t help our case.

When I feel stretched too thin, I take a step back and look at what’s most important, figure out whom I can delegate to and decide if it has to be done now. Then I talk to my boss. As I head off to deliver my second little one, something tells me we’ll be having a lot more talks in the near future.

To see this story and the rest of the digital edition of the April 2016 issue of DiversityInc Magazine click here.

2 comments


  • Thank you for this article. I am a 35 year old, Latina, mid-level manager, pregnant with my first child. I have a big team of both virtual and in office workers spread out all over the country. I sometimes feel like even though I have tremendous support from my boss and senior level-executives that I need to go above and beyond their expectations to prove my worth. I didn’t announce to my team until recently that I am pregnant and I am already over the halfway mark of pregnancy. I didn’t make any announcement to my peers. I don’t think I am hiding anything, but I feel like I just need to be there without distractions. I was upfront with my boss immediately and she has been super supportive and encouraging about coordinating future time off and needs. I think I am lucky. However, in the back of my mind, I maintain that “good is not enough” mentality. This article is encouraging that I am not the only one and I really need to start taking things at face value and enjoy this time. Thank you again!

  • Lisa Durante

    This is an excellent perspective. We all are wishing and hoping for the day to come for government and company policies to provide us all we need to make our transition to motherhood easier. Until then, we have to take active ownership on our careers and that means planning maternity leave in a way that honors what it is that we need while considering what is also good for our careers and the business we serve.

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