Executive Women On How Maternity Leave Affected Their Careers

Executive Women On How Maternity

Leave Affected Their Careers

The pay discrepancy between men and women has been an ongoing conversation for years. While there are numerous reports of women getting paid less than their male counterparts for the exact same job, the gender pay gap isn’t always so straight forward. In fact, it’s a pretty complex, nuanced issue with numerous factors that are issues in and of themselves.

For example, men and women tend to enter different fields, they often negotiate differently, there are employer biases, and — here’s a big one — there’s the “motherhood tax.” According to Pew Research from 2015 data, “roughly four-in-ten mothers said that at some point in their work life they had taken a significant amount of time off (39%) or reduced their work hours (42%) to care for a child or other family member. Roughly a quarter (27%) said they had quit work altogether to take care of these familial responsibilities.”

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that Pew Research went on to find that these numbers were remarkably lower for men. Just 24% of fathers indicated that they took significant time off to care for a child or family member, 28% reduced work hours, and 10% quit a job.

It’s not all bad news however, with lots of female-founded companies sprouting to address the issues outlined here, including Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean’s Werk, which hopes to stimulate flexibility within the work week. There is also increased pressure on the government to initiate statewide programmes to help women taking maternity leave or making the transition back to work.

This boils down to a couple things: persistent gender roles and perceived societal norms, and the current, unforgiving employer structure for maternity leave. Curious about how maternity leave has affected their careers, we asked three high-level career women point blank: what did maternity leave look like for you? We also asked them to share advice for current and future pregnant women. Here’s what they told us.

Holly Caplan: Author on Women’s Workplace Issues
Holly Caplan

After climbing the corporate ladder and finding great success in her career, Holly Caplan realized that she’d become, in her words, “a dick.”

This personality shift, she explains, was the result of a need to acclimate and survive in a male-dominated workspace. She eventually realized that corporate world wasn’t for her — this happened after she had her baby at age 40 — and has since gone on to author books about women in the workplace. Her most recent book is titled Surviving the Dick Clique: A Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Male Dominated Corporate World.

Caplan was a regional manager with a team of eight sales representatives when she became pregnant. She tasked one of her top sales reps to cover for her while on maternity leave and resumed her original role upon return.

“I took eight weeks as allowed by my company at the time, and I took one more week of my personal vacation in order to have nine weeks. Looking back, I could have taken more maternity leave with my vacation hours, but was afraid to do so. I didn’t want to lose anymore time away from the company, and I was afraid of what my colleagues and upper level management would think. I was concerned they would see me as not dedicated and that I could potentially lose my ‘edge’ by becoming a mother,” she recalled. “Regarding how it impacted my pay, I lost 40% of my salary while I was out. Maternity leave is considered the same as part time disability. I had to fill out paperwork not based on maternity leave, but to receive part time disability pay. Which was kind of ironic to me, because having baby is a natural ability, and not a disability. When I voiced my opinions to HR, I was quickly told ‘It is what it is.’”

Though the role was still there for her when she returned, she told SWAAY that it wasn’t an easy transition back into the office. She was sleep deprived and recalled that her mind wasn’t as sharp as it had been when working full time before giving birth. Fortunately, her company was supportive in her return and understood it would take a few weeks for her to re-assimilate. Despite some of the difficulties however, Caplan said that becoming a mother, and taking maternity leave, gave her a new perspective.

“It taught me not to sweat the small stuff. After all, I had just given birth, survived nine weeks of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and all the other life lessons that come with early motherhood,” says Caplan. “I also think it made me a better manager because I became more attentive, thoughtful and forgiving.” 

Her advice for others is to fully understand your company’s policy on maternity leave salary so you can plan financially in advance. Having a baby increases spending, she said, but maternity leave pay does not allows allow you to comfortably absorb this new expense. She also advised asking what your company expects from you in return, and to ask all the tough questions. Solidify as much as possible before you leave, and communicate with the person who’s taking over your responsibilities.

Allison Robinson: CEO of The Mom Project

The Mom Project is a destination for career-oriented women — specifically working mothers — that aims to redefine the path to professional success. Robinson founded the company after having her first child in 2015 and has had two children since.

“For my first, I was still with P&G and had the good fortune to be able to take several months off. I never ended up returning from my first maternity leave, and that was actually when I founded The Mom Project,” she told SWAAY. “For my second son, however, I was in the midst of fundraising for our first round of venture capital for The Mom Project, so my leave looked quite a bit different and I was emailing from the hospital. As CEO, I delegated as many responsibilities I could to my incredibly competent team.”

Allison Robinson

Ultimately, she said that motherhood was the best thing for her career, as it served as the catalyst for founding her business. That said, she acknowledges that taking the entrepreneurial route might not always work out for others, and that motherhood — along with other factors such as cognitive biases, rigid structures, and the lack of female leadership advocating for other women — can certainly affect a woman’s career-related progress.

In terms of transitioning into and out of maternity leave, she said, “Be honest and transparent with your boss about your needs. If you’re not getting the support you need, start looking for new opportunities.”

Sandy Smith: President of Smith Publicity

Sandy Smith is currently the president of Smith Publicity, but when she had her first child she served as marketing manager at a 300+ employee company that was part of a Fortune 100 company. “For my first child, I went on maternity leave for three months. Someone covered for me, but my job was 100 percent waiting for me when I returned. It helped I was with the company for many years before having the baby,” she said. “Luckily for me, it did not impact my career or opportunities at the job I had. I went back and was even offered additional responsibility and opportunities soon after returning. My job and boss were exactly the same in terms of support and how I was treated.”

Upon return, Smith’s grandparents cared for her daughter through her and her husband’s long work days. She said, “I was always tired in those early days, but I tried not to let it show at work. These were the days before flexible hours and work from home were common.”

Sandy Smith

“Luckily for me, it did not impact my career or opportunities at the job I had. I went back and was even offered additional responsibility and opportunities soon after returning. My job and boss were exactly the same in terms of support and how I was treated.” 

-Sandy Smith

Though she’d originally gone back to work, her maternity leave helped her realize that she wanted a different life as a parent.   

“My husband was offered a new job in a new state. We decided to move, that I would stay home with my daughter, and we’d live on one income. It was not easy, but I’d do it again,” she said. “We had a second child three years later, and I stayed home for eight years total before slowly re-entering the work world. I started working for my job, Smith Publicity, in 2005 part-time and within two years became the vice president and then later the president.” Smith’s advice to other women is to remain as organized as possible for a “change of hands” toward the end of your pregnancy, to check in socially and in regard to work with colleagues while you’re away, and to keep your skillset sharp.

“When taking a long break — even with no specific return plan — keep skills as current as possible. There are a ton of free or inexpensive webinars, podcasts, blogs, and books for all industries. Education is never wasted,” she said.

Wendy Rose Gould

Wendy Rose Gould is a reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona. She covers women’s lifestyle topics for numerous digital publications, including Refinery29, InStyle, xoVain, Headspace, PopSugar and ModCloth. You can learn more about her at WendyGould.com.

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