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
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."
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."
“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.
When their frustration with current fabric care options had fashionistas Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd worn out, the two entrepreneurs made it their mission to start a new niche and launch their very own at-home, eco-friendly laundry detergent line.
With a mission of turning an everyday domestic chore into a luxurious experience, these entrepreneurs not only conjured up an idea for an unconventional product line, but they successfully built their business while turning down the offer of every venture capitalist to knock on their door.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd co-founded The Laundress in 2004 after dealing with their own personal frustrations with limited clothing care options. Whiting, having worked at Ralph Lauren in design and Boyd having worked at Chanel in corporate sales, soon accumulated a stylish wardrobe of designer pieces as perks of their jobs in the fashion industry. However, the duo quickly realized that the maintenance required for upkeeping these items were far from adequate. Laundry products on the market at the time did not cater to delicate textures and fabrics such as tweed blazers, cable-knit cashmere and silk blouses. Taking their clothing to the dry cleaners also proved hopeless as their clothing would often come back with stains or even be ruined despite the overload of chemicals used to clean them. With nowhere left to turn, Whiting and Boyd were determined to create their own laundry solutions designed for specific fabrics.
Not only did the entrepreneurs develop the business expertise needed to finally begin their own company, but they also shared the same educational background that equipped them to pursue their unconventional business venture. Whiting and Boyd met in college as students at Cornell University majoring in Fiber Science, Textile, and Apparel Management and Design. The pair was introduced by a mutual friend and instantly knew they would become business partners. "It was inevitable that we were going to have a business together. We are both extremely entrepreneurial by nature, and it was one of the connections that we instantly shared" said Whiting. After focusing on pursuing their own individual careers for a while, Whiting and Boyd quickly discovered a void in the fabric care marketplace when their clients would continuously inquire about the upkeep of their designer pieces.
The entrepreneurial duo was committed to researching and developing their own eco-friendly laundry products and soon launched their own at-home solutions for specific fabrics like silk, wool and denim, which ultimately eliminated the need for dry cleaning for those particular items. Despite their products filling a necessary void in the market, it quickly became challenging for the founders to persuade people to shift their focus away from traditional laundry care options in order to try their products. However, Whiting and Boyd believed in their mission for the Laundress and bootstrapped from the very beginning, refusing all venture capital funding with the goal of growing organically. In order to be successful, they had to get creative in fundraising. "In the very early days, we funded business development by hosting a 'for profit' party at a New York City restaurant and inviting friends, family, co-workers, etc. to support our new venture. That was pre-Kickstarter and an inventive way to make everyone feel a big part of our decision to be entrepreneurs," said Whiting.
While turning down VC funding as new entrepreneurs seems unimaginable, it is as equally unfathomable to consider how these women gained national traction without social media, all the while hustling to fund their business. For Whiting and Boyd, who started their business before social media existed, it was imperative that they promote their brand by leveraging the resources they had available to them. The CEO's were one of the first to sell consumer goods, let alone detergent, online with the goal of reaching a national audience. Despite having limited retail distribution, they leveraged the power of their website and became featured in publications on both a national and international scale. "Before social media platforms existed, we nurtured our own Laundress community with engaging content on our website, step-by-step tutorials on our blog, and one-on-one communication through our Ask The Laundress email," Whiting explained. With technology evolving and the birth of social media platforms, the founders expanded the conversation about their products from website, blog and email to platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
As female entrepreneurs, Whiting and Boyd faced additional hardships as misconceptions about their mission ultimately proved to disappoint more than it encouraged them. As women selling luxury detergent, there existed a preconceived notion that funding would be more easily attainable based upon their gender.
"Everyone thought it was easy to access capital as female entrepreneurs, but it was actually very challenging. We had this unique and disruptive idea within a very traditional space and it was hard to get people on board at first. It's been a continuous journey to educate people in fabric care and home cleaning," said Boyd.
Reflecting on their journey as entrepreneurs, the founders express no regrets about refusing to accept venture capital throughout the process. "Over the years, we could never quantify the cost benefit of VC funding so we continued to grow organically and remain independent by funding ourselves with credit cards and loans," explained Boyd. While their decision proved fruitful, the duo expressed their consideration towards other entrepreneurs who may not be able to fully fund their business as they grow. Because funding is a situational experience, entrepreneurs must ultimately do what is best for their business as no one path is optimal for every entrepreneur or every business.
With an increasing amount of women entering entrepreneurship with their own unique set of products or services, the CEO's offer up one piece of advice on how female entrepreneurs can be successful in their endeavors.
Whiting: "Our advice to anyone looking to build their brands: Have a strong business plan and vision. If you are not disciplined to write a business plan first then you are not disciplined to start a business. Get your ideas down so you ask yourself the right questions; it helps you get organized and plan next steps."
Boyd: "Create quality products without sacrificing the ingredients—no cutting corners. What you create should be the most important piece. Stay passionate, and trust your instincts and follow your gut—something woman are awesome at!"