I got promoted to president of the advertising agency I work for when I was five months pregnant. To say that I work for a progressive company is an understatement.
Three months into taking on the role, the coronavirus pandemic hit. At the same time, pregnancy complications forced me to spend most of the month of March in the hospital where I ultimately had the baby, six weeks early, at the boiling point of the outbreak.
Anyone who’s had a baby knows how tough those first few weeks are. This is my second baby, so I thought I was prepared. But this time was different. We were in lockdown, there was no support system to help with the baby, no friends and family coming over to make meals or help you sneak in a quick shower or nap. My mom works in a hospital, so she couldn’t even be there. It was just us.
My husband had spent the majority of the month with me in the hospital, working and doing calls from my bedside. He was as engaged and supportive as anyone could ever ask for.
But given that the world (and the economy) were crashing, he had to get back to work four days after we brought the baby home from the hospital. It was the necessary decision. As a leader in his firm, he had a responsibility to help the company through an unprecedented time.
As a businesswoman, I completely understood. It’s what he needed to do for his company, his clients and for our family. But as someone who also had a responsibility to lead a company I’ve helped build, employees that I deeply care for, and a career I’ve worked tirelessly to grow, I deeply resented him. I resented him for having a choice, and for having a backstop that I certainly didn’t have.
We were both becoming parents again, and we were both responsible for leading our companies. The only difference was — I am a woman.
There I was, straddling the same decisions and guilt women have been facing for generations. Knowing that there was no choice — of course my family comes first, but I also felt this immense sense of guilt and failure that I wasn’t able to be there to do my job and navigate us through what was undoubtedly the most challenging situation in the history of our business.
As a business leader, I have always been passionate about advocating for policies that ensure we are empowering the women in our company ― to ensure there is equal opportunity and pay. I believe we’ve been successful in doing that. In fact, the majority of our senior roles in the company are held by women. All of that said, this experience made me realize more than anything that policies that focus on women aren’t enough.
This is a cultural problem, one that our country is far behind on. There’s a reason that women only hold 25% of executive or senior-level roles despite making up 49% of the college-educated workforce. It’s no secret the falloff happens when women start to have families. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, women have been exiting the workforce in record numbers in order to care for children. In this country, society teaches us that a woman is more necessary for caretaking or that we somehow are better at it. And what permeates that idea even more are corporate policies that miss the point.
“In this country, society teaches us that a woman is more necessary for caretaking or that we somehow are better at it. And what permeates that idea even more are corporate policies that miss the point.”
Many companies have generous maternity leave policies, but when leaving fathers out of the equation, all those policies do is continue to perpetuate the idea that caretaking is a woman’s role, and that it’s expected for her to put her career on hold in order to fill that role. Beyond this, many companies do have parental leave policies for fathers and mothers or primary caretakers — but there is an unspoken rule that if the father takes advantage of the policy, he will be penalized or jeopardize a promotion or career track.
If companies are truly committed to gender equality, it’s not enough to just have PR-friendly policies that make your company look progressive. You need to ensure those policies are ingrained in your culture. That means ensuring leadership, men or women, are taking time off for parental leave to set the example. That means making parental leave mandatory so no employee has to feel like they’re making a choice that will jeopardize their career.
Becoming a parent is a beautiful moment — and a great responsibility that is equally important no matter your gender. Having this filter is paramount in our ability to close the gender gap, and even more urgent as the gap is becoming exacerbated by the global pandemic.
Our baby will turn 1 at the end of March, and those early weeks sometimes feel like a lifetime ago. Just like everyone else, we’re working to figure out our new normal, and finding the balance between supporting each others’ careers and maximizing time with our boys.
Professionally, I returned to work (remotely) last summer. During the three months I was out, the way the company needed to operate fundamentally changed. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there were some major insecurities when I came back ― I had to learn the new ways we worked, and I had to strike a balance between humility and assertiveness as I figured out how to take the reins back while taking cues from the team that had weathered the storm while I was out. Just like everyone else, I evolved to the new normal and quickly found my groove ― and lucky enough, the company and I are both thriving.