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BY Samantha Samel

How to Improve Your Company’s Parental Leave--Like These Women at The Times

By Samantha Samel

Erin Grau and her family

Photo credit: Pictured above: Erin Grau, VP of Operations at the New York Times, with her family. Photo: Jenny Grant Digital Imaging

Erin Grau, VP of Operations at The New York Times, has the best out-of-office message I’ve ever seen: “I welcomed a new baby girl into the world and am on maternity leave until May 1 thanks to the generous parental leave policy offered by The Times in response to a proposal by the Women’s Network,” it reads.

“If you’re not familiar with the business case for paid family leave, it increases retention, earnings, and retirement security among workers - especially women - as well as the chance that women will keep working after kids,” Grau’s automatic reply continues, before going on to note that generous parental leave policies are good not only for birth mothers but for all parents - and that they can lead to a more productive workplace and ultimately reduce costs for employers.

Like me, others have been moved by Grau’s note. In fact, she says that “the interest in it has been overwhelming; it’s been retweeted over 700 times!”

Beyond its popularity on social media, Grau’s message about The Times’ new policy seems to be inspiring more substantive changes. “I’ve since heard from so many people around the country who want to see improved parental leave policies at their companies and are asking for the business case to send to their company’s HR and leadership teams,” she told me.

Grau’s out-of-office message is particularly poignant because she personally had a hand in formulating The Times’ new policy, which went into effect in the spring of 2016 (the policy was applied retroactively - so anyone who had begun taking leave on Jan. 1, 2016 or later could enjoy the extended time off).

With the help of resources like Fairygodboss, she and Rebecca Grossman-Cohen (VP, Platforms + Product Marketing at The New York Times) -- who are co-chairs of the Women’s Network, a Times employee resource group for women -- co-authored the parental leave proposal, along with New York Times SVP of Video Alex MacCallum, Alex Hardiman (who now works at Facebook) and Christine Hung (who’s now at Spotify.)  

Before writing the proposal, which they submitted to senior leadership on behalf of the Women’s Network, the five women - while juggling their jobs, pregnancies, and newborns - spent months putting together a competitive assessment, thoroughly researching the business case of parental leave and reviewing insights from an informal poll of employees who had taken parental leave in the last few years.

The leadership team approved the proposal on the spot.

“I’d be lying if I said it was a smooth road from the time 5 of us decided to write a proposal over lunch to its ultimate approval by our executive committee, but it was worth it for us, for our families, and for all of our colleagues who will benefit from the new policy,” Grau explains. “We feel incredibly fortunate to work at a company that supports us as we grow both our careers and our family, and to work for a leadership team that listens to the needs of its employees.”

According to Ellen Shultz, EVP of Talent & Inclusion at The Times, the new policy is “being well-utilized by both men and women, [and The Times is] seeing increased hiring of women and promotion of women, which is certainly [due in part to Grau’s and Grossman-Cohen’s] efforts.”

To get a better sense of how exactly the Women’s Network made their case, I spoke to Grau and Grossman-Cohen. They shed light on their motivations for proposing the new policy, walked me through their approach, and shared a bit about the (overwhelmingly positive) response among Times employees.

Fairygodboss: How does The Times’ current parental leave policy compare to what it had been previously?

Erin Grau: Before The Times updated its policy last year, birth mothers had 12-14 weeks mostly paid (11.1 weeks paid for vaginal births). Today, our policy is not only more generous, but more inclusive: birth mothers get 16 weeks fully paid (18 for c-sections), partners of birth mothers, birth fathers and adoptive parents get 10 weeks, which they can take any way they wish within the first year.

One other change is that employees are eligible from their first day of work; the old policy required employees to work a full year before being eligible. When I had my first daughter Matilda, I took 12 weeks and I felt so lucky to have 3 months with her, especially given how few women get paid maternity leave in this country or have to return to work at 6 weeks or take on a financial burden to stay home with their newborns without pay.

Now, with my second daughter Francesca (who was born in January), the extra month feels like such a luxury. I have time to take care of myself and get to know Francesca, and I find myself worrying much less - about the passage of time, transitioning back to work and balancing my family and my job, about breastfeeding - everything!

Rebecca Grossman-Cohen: What was particularly important to us was getting the length to a point where mothers could feel like they had ample time to recover physically and so that any parent could get comfortable with their newborn, new family, and new life.

We did a lot of research to make a recommendation on a program we thought would be great for parents, but also for the Times. For the Times, we wanted to help it become even more competitive in the market by having policies to attract and retain talent. Our old policy was outdated and ranked low against our peer set, which we thought was not reflective of The Times as a brand and employer.

FGB: Can you tell me a bit about The Women’s Network and how the group mobilized on this issue?

EG: The Women's Network is a New York Times employee resource group with the goal of connecting women in the company, assisting in career development, and influencing workplace policies that allow women at The Times to thrive.

Last year, the Women’s Network focused largely on parenthood as its leaders were starting families while also balancing leadership roles at the company. We wrote the policy proposal to increase parental leave not only for ourselves, but for all parents at The Times. As we wrote in our proposal, The New York Times is a leader in journalism, advertising, marketing and technology. However, when it came to supporting working parents, our competitive assessment showed us that The Times was behind new digital upstarts as well as our traditional media competitors.

We believed that making changes to the policy would assist in hiring and retaining top talent, which will be critical to hit our aggressive growth targets which the leadership team laid out a year and a half ago in Our Path Forward.

RGC: The Women’s Network is a formal group, sanctioned by the company, but our mandate is really up to us as leadership. What we have found is that we fill a missing link in the connection between staff on the ground and leadership.

Last year, after we were successful in getting the policy updated, [New York Times President and CEO] Mark Thompson said he hoped that employee resource groups would continue to bring policy proposals in front of leadership and help guide their thinking.

FGB: Once you had a goal in mind/agreed on what you were requesting, how did you go about making your case to implement this new policy?

EG: We were strategic, focused, thoughtful and well-researched.

RGC: Our approach was to make the proposal as focused and comprehensive as possible so the decision could be a swift one. Once we had the pitch meeting, we were delighted by how fast Mark Thompson and Michael Golden (the then-head of human resources at the company) responded to it. They got it right away, and acted really fast to change the policy, which reflects their openness and understanding. It’s to their credit that this went through as smoothly it did.

As a side note, I was actually out on maternity leave on the day of our pitch, so I came in with my daughter who was probably 6 or 8 weeks at the time. It made that meeting that much more meaningful for me!

Pictured above: Rebecca Grossman-Cohen with her family. Photo: Diana Lee Photography

FGB: Where did you collect information from to support your proposal?

RGC: We did a lot of basic internet research and found a lot of articles to help us make our case in The New York Times. Obviously we had to include those!

We also stumbled across this new website that was collecting parental leave policies of employers in one, digitized, easily searchable environment - Fairygodboss! That was really helpful for giving us a way to quickly run comps. And then we also reached out to one of our reporters who writes on this helped pull a ton of really useful back stories and information. She also reviewed the proposal with her editorial eye, which was incredibly useful.

FGB: Were there elements of your proposal that you made but were not approved?

EG: The proposal included 3 key needs we felt were important to address:

First, increasing the amount of paid parental leave; second, developing policies on transition plans and temporary backfilling; and third, improving the culture of support around taking leave.

We increased the paid parental leave and continue to work with leadership on improving the culture of support around taking leave with the goal of making it clear that employees are supported and encouraged to be available to their families, while neutralizing any effect of being out of the office on parental leave.

In addition to advocating on behalf of new and working parents, one of the most impactful things we can do is to lead by example and encourage leaders to take the time and to share (and celebrate!) how they’re using their leave.

FGB: What were the biggest challenges in implementing the new policy?

EG: There were a few challenges - effectively communicating both the business case for parental leave and anecdotes from the 5 of us and so many of our colleagues who were trying to navigate their careers and families. We also needed to balance the proposal with the needs of the business and with a sensitivity to the financial climate. And of course the increased cost to the business, but the more important question there was ‘what is the cost of not extending our parental leave?’

RGC: The biggest challenge related to this specifically is tied to transitioning in and out. That’s hard for people on a practical, logistical level, but also emotionally. We still need to do work there. We’ve been so very heartened to see a lot of our male friends and colleagues taking their entire leaves. This is a huge benefit for their newborns, their partners, (for them, obviously), and for the Times. It helps validate women taking it and to create a culture of acceptance.

FGB: Since the policy has changed, how have you generated awareness about it (both internally and externally)?

EG: The policy was announced to all employees. One of the most exciting things for us is to have colleagues announce their pregnancy, partner’s pregnancy or adoption and simultaneously thank us for the new policy.

RGC: Actually, I have had more men thank me than women. Not because women aren’t grateful! But because so many men are taking advantage of it.

FGB: Do you find most new parents have been taking advantage of the new program (taking as much time off as possible)?

EG: Since we enhanced parental leave, the use of parental leave has increased significantly and it is now one of our most popular benefits.

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