Pregnant and Promoted

Kathryn is exactly the kind of manager that very large companies develop strategies to hunt down, woo and hire. As with many things in business, I found Kathryn by happenstance. She is smart, loyal, efficient, analytical and great with people. She would never boast--but in an interview you might find out that she was the youngest female ever to graduate with an MBA from Harvard. Her husband got a medical residency in St. John's, NL (Bluedrop's HQ) and they moved there with their young daughter from Germany in 2014. About two months later, I was at an event in Halifax, getting an award from her former boss, David Shaw, CEO of Knightsbridge. He mentioned that a young protégé from a few years back had just moved to St John's and advised me to hire her. Within a few months--I did. While the rest is history, the rest of this post is not about Kathryn or her history with Bluedrop. Rather, I want to focus on women in executive positions... and how having children should not limit their ascendency up the corporate ladder.

The statistics on women in leadership positions are not great. According to Catalyst, by October 2015, women held only 4.6% of CEO positions on the S&P500. In private, some executives will say that makes sense. Any employee who steps out of the ring at a critical time misses the opportunity to advance to the next match. I disagree. That said, I am not writing to moralize or speak about policies that sound like affirmative action. For me, it is far more basic than that - this has less to do with "doing the right thing" and much more with "taking care of business." Diverse workplaces create more powerful innovation and better economic outcomes. Women, in my experience, are particularly better collaborators, opportunists, problem solvers and natural givers. Women also bring another lens of emotional intelligence--which is a key leadership trait. Women understand reactionary behaviors, deal rationally with crisis, and put themselves in clients' shoes tremendously well. Research has very recently indicated that increasing the number of women in your workforce from zero to 30 percent corresponds with a 15 percent rise in profitability (Peterson Institute for International Economics, EY). So, this post is not about moral badgering, it is about how to run a better business to achieve its potential. And women are a huge part of that.

Beyond stats and figures, I believe that mothers are some of the most productive people you can hire. By nature of their busy lives, working mothers simply don't have time to waste. I have seen female employees transform for the better after having children--their sense of priority in their jobs heightens when they become mothers. Multi-tasking seamlessly between work challenges, deadlines, daycare pick-up and drop-off, grocery runs, being supportive partners, traveling, and countless appointments is just a short list of what they deal with. As a father, I've certainly had many of those days... but mothers? If we are honest as a society--it's not even close.

Unfortunately, I work in the technology industry where the female talent pool is still anemic. When I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in 1992, there was one woman in my class of 23. Wow. Fortunately, the winds of change have been blowing. Engineers Canada showed that female representation has been increasing each year since 2008, making up 18.9% of total enrollments in 2013 and about the same in the US. Female engineers and programmers do quite well moving up the ranks for the first 10 years, but by the time these female engineers hit their mid-thirties, the gap in leadership is pronounced. One in four female engineers leave the field after age 30, compared to only one in 10 male engineers (Society of Women Engineers). Yes, that hurts companies. And it is not sincere to view this as purely a personal choice - CEOs can't wash their hands of this... the policies and environments we create play a role in the disenfranchisement of working moms. We need to provide mothers more of the right benefits, flexibility and understanding in their situations. The curse of modern HR is trying so hard to treat everyone exactly the same. I believe employees today are actually looking for the exact opposite--to be treated as individuals. Working mothers want to have some accommodation for their special needs--something as simple as encouraging a mom to bring her child to work for a few hours in a special circumstance will go a huge distance to say "we understand." Mothers also want desperately to be graded on their outputs versus a grading on a 'one size fits all' set of inputs... this type of grading hurts those who, for example, need to leave early or can't travel as much.

Canada provides up to a year of maternity leave, with continuance of a modest salary. In the US, it is shocking how few protections there are for new moms. I fail to see how this is a "right" or "left" issue. I find it unfathomable that some of my executive friends in US businesses bark about "government intrusions..." or, "my tax dollars funding another entitlement". I find these arguments disingenuous. Businesses successfully factor in all kinds of regulatory and social burdens into their business models; so societies which don't choose paid maternity leave are making a values decision--not a decision to protect their economy. These approaches actually hurt their economy by disenfranchising a very important group of workers. And how is this another "entitlement" to "another group". We ALL had mothers, folks! Oops, slipped into moralizing... sorry, I said I wouldn't. Back to the business case-- businesses need women (and diversity, in general) in their leadership to protect their interests. And, if women don't feel like they are in work environments that will support their personal circumstances, they will either leave for another firm, or curtail their career goals. Both are bad for businesses.

To be fully transparent, Bluedrop's Board of Directors and core leadership team are all male. I don't like that--but I also believe in meritocracy and hiring the person with the best overall fit for the company--regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I believe that societies and countries that tolerate discrimination against any group in the workforce will be the losers in today's innovation arms race.

A few years ago, when Bluedrop was much smaller, there was a time when four out of five of our highest positions were female. Today, I can say that one level below the core leadership team there is a strong representation of women in key director, program management, project management and other VP positions, some of which are mothers, or expecting.

As a parting thought, if you have expectant mothers on your staff, include them in the decisions around how to support their roles while they are on maternity leave. Never put them in isolation, otherwise you will risk pushing them out and sending the message that, 'because you are leaving anyway I will start making the decisions from here on out', leaving her disengaged and worried about whether she will have a job to come back to. Their ability to come back to work should be driven by them and supported by you as much as possible. Arrange for the team she works closest with to be actively engaged in bringing her back up to speed. The transition back to work is hard enough--so, when Kathryn nervously shared with me the great news about her pregnancy, I decided to be deliberate in my actions. Today, a few weeks before the birth of her second child, she has been promoted to Vice President of Corporate Strategy. She will come back when she is ready--and I am sure Bluedrop will be better for it.

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