TD Bank’s Isabella Song on Advocating for Working Parents

Originally published at stories.td.com. Isabella Song is a Senior Risk Manager at TD Bank. TD Bank ranked No. 13 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2022. 

 

I’ll be heading out on parental leave as I prepare for the birth of my second child. As any working parent will tell you, those final days and weeks leading into a parental leave bring with them a roller coaster of emotions.

All at once, you’re excited to meet your new bundle of joy, nervous about the sleepless nights ahead, and somewhere in your mind, you’re also worrying about wrapping up everything at work before you head out on leave. For many, career progression isn’t a primary concern at a time like this.

But just a few months ago, after I had already informed my managers that I would be taking at least a year of parental leave, I applied for and received a promotion. I went from being an individual contributor focusing on my own projects to a People Manager in the Risk department at TD, supporting a team.

This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. It represented the next phase in my career journey. It was something I had actively been working towards.

And yet, I almost self-selected out of the opportunity; I nearly took myself out of the running for this role before I could even be considered.

Why? To be honest, I didn’t think I was an attractive candidate. Not because I didn’t think I could do the job. But because I was pregnant.

Self-Selecting Out

Like so many women, I thought of my upcoming leave as an inconvenience; how could the organization promote me if I was leaving — for more than a year — in just three months?

I thought to myself that if I took the role, it wasn’t just my success I had to consider. I’d have a whole team of people relying on me. And just a few months after assuming my new role, I’d be away, and they’d have to find someone to fill the role while I was gone.

This kind of thinking is known as “self-selecting out” and essentially involves you thinking you shouldn’t apply for a role or an opportunity because it might be inconvenient for others. It’s a common theme among working women when they are preparing to take time away from their career for their family.

These kinds of feelings are just one of the challenges facing women who want to try and balance growing their family while fostering their career development.

After my first parental leave, I felt insecure back at work. It was a series of firsts — my first child, my first time away from my baby, my first time planning for a family of three, and my first time returning to a new-to-me role.

What would it be like to start a completely new job? When I spoke to other women who were family planning, I realized I wasn’t alone when it came to these feelings. They told me they would likely stay in their current role to make it easier on themselves and the organization. Even before they got pregnant, they imagined their teams would think they had “abandoned” them.

“What if You Weren’t Pregnant?”

So, when the role I wanted was posted, I had pretty much already decided I wasn’t going to apply.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was in a development meeting with one of my leaders where they brought up the role and asked me why I hadn’t applied for it, that I started to reconsider.

This person asked me: “What if you weren’t pregnant? Would you apply for this role if parental leave wasn’t a factor?”

Emphatically, I said yes. Immediately I began asking myself why I was doubting myself.

My manager, Callum Mair, told me: “Family and career progress shouldn’t have an impact on each other, so think of your future career and what that looks like.”

I knew I had the skills to do the job, but it wasn’t until he encouraged me to apply that I had the courage to do so.

Leadership saw what I initially didn’t see in myself. They brushed away my concerns. They helped me realize that my family and career could grow in tandem. They could see I was self-selecting out and didn’t want me to do that.

I decided to apply for the role, and trust that leadership would figure out the logistics.

Throughout the application process, I learned a lot about the importance of self-advocacy, checking your biases and not self-selecting out of opportunities.

I know my story is not unique. Before this experience, I thought I had a good handle on balancing work life and home life, and that I had a progressive view of women in the workplace.

I volunteered for Women in Leadership at TD, an employee resource group supporting women at all levels of the Bank, for many years. I thought of myself as well-educated about unconscious bias — I was actively talking to my peers and community members about how to overcome it.

But I was too focused on how society viewed women and parental leaves, and not on how I viewed myself as a woman and what I wanted for my career. In retrospect, I pushed myself hard when returning from my first parental leave because I wanted to prove I could balance everything as a working mom.

Challenging Bias

It’s up to all of us to break these stigmas. To help move the needle, we need to be more proactive, to encourage our peers to go after those opportunities that will help their careers and to sponsor and advocate for working parents.

We need to talk about parental leave. We need to be vocal about career goals, even while pregnant or on leave. We need supportive leaders so positive influence can spread. We need to ensure we have an environment that cultivates a culture of care. Individuals need to advocate for themselves — and we need leaders to push for progress as well. We, as employees and employers, must separate family planning logistics from career progression.

I’ll be heading off on parental leave with a renewed sense of confidence. I’m not worried about what will happen when I step back into the office. When I decide to return, I have confidence that TD will support me with a plan that works for my team — and my family.

Indeed, sometimes, the most effective way to drive change is to be the change yourself.

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