“I don’t think there’s going to be anyone who disagrees with the fact that leave is super important,” Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, IBM’s Leadership Succession Planning and Chief Diversity Officer, said to a packed room at Fairygodboss’ inaugural Galvanize summit. “The fact that we are pushing so hard on leave in this country when lots of other countries have figured it out… it’s clearly something we need to figure out how to do.”
As part of the event, women leaders gathered to discuss health policies that support women and families, as well as how companies can further incorporate them into their workplace. Panelist Brianna Cayo Cotter, Chief of Staff at PL+US, kicked off the hour-long discussion with a startling statistic — that 114 million women do not have access to family leave.
“Many women go back to work within 10 days of childbirth. That’s not okay,” Cotter said. “We’re working with every level of power to try to change that. All paid leave, all the time.”
In today’s workplace, women rarely get to own the conversation about their own paid leave. While it’s not just women who need to take paid leave — and it’s not just maternity leave that individuals need paid leave for — many companies fail to help employees balance work, family, and life.
Michelle Perez, Principal at Artemis Connection, acknowledged Artemis’ strides to provide their employees with an ideal work-life balance while simultaneously prioritizing family and work. “How do you create more of a flexible schedule and still have a life and a family?” Perez asked the audience. “We’re remote unless we’re on the ground with a client. I don’t think we’ve cracked the nut yet, but that’s our mission.”
“As HR professionals or diversity professionals or senior managers, there’s only so much we can do,” panelist Daisy Dowling, Founder and CEO of Workparent, said. “A person at a 30,000-person company can’t have a conversation with all other 29,000 employees. But they can encourage people who do have kids and are a working parent within the organization to be more forthcoming and have those conversations. There’s a lot that organizations can do on a more systemic level.”
Kate Ryder, Founder and CEO of Maven Clinic, has spent the last three years growing her business and actively seeking to understand corporate America. “There are a lot of things that have shocked me about health care,” she said. “But there’s an economic case for helping women and better supporting them in getting back to work.”
Companies across several industries have created policies that enable employees to easily take paid leave. Starbucks, for one, has utilized a job-share program, where two people share management and other responsibilities. Microsoft will backfill employees on leave with vendors so that no party feels the pressure of an absent employee. Most recently, IBM introduced an improved parental leave policy that extends leave to 22 weeks.
“When you’re as big as IBM, you get to experiment early and often,” McIntyre said.
While these policies have not yet become mainstream, there are other actionable ways leaders can create change on a localized level, Dowling explained.
“The advice I would give to any parent who is about to go on leave is very similar, whether they are earlier in their career or later in their career — own the narrative,” she said. “When you talk to your boss, do not assume they are clairvoyant. Go into a meeting with a clear transition plan. Don’t assume that your boss knows.”
Mentors and managers have a large role in how paid leave is seen amongst a team. “It’s important for us to give voices to people,” McIntyre said. “It’s important to shine a light on the realities of it all.”
“You have a powerful role in a couple ways,” Cotter said. “You are powerful agents that can help move towards equality.”
Cotter recommended that, when you look at creating change within your own company, look at changing unequal policies that affect separate levels of employees. “Advocate for policies that affect all employees at your company,” instead of ones that only affect senior level managers.
If you’re fortunate enough to work at a company where internal policies are near-perfect, take advantage of that by advocating for better public policies. “Health care operates a lot like fashion and beauty,” Ryder said. “Women control the decision-making, but the system doesn’t treat us that way.”
“There’s unconscious bias around parenting,” Perez acknowledged. “For men, it almost helps their career. Where with women, it doesn’t.”
Not everyone is going to be able to do 20 weeks of leave, I get that,” McIntyre said. “But everyone wants a balanced workforce.”
As companies recognize that they perform better when women are in leadership roles, changemakers are starting to take advantage of this opportunity. In Perez (and her panelists’) case, she wants to “create opportunities for people who need flexibility, whatever those reasons may be.”
“It’s not just the right thing to do,” Ryder added. “It’s the right thing for business.”