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Executive Women On How Maternity Leave Affected Their Careers

6 Min Read
Career

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, “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 so many female-founded companies sprouting up 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 programs 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% waiting for me when I returned. It helped that 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 working 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."

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.

This piece was originally published on March 11, 2018.

5 Min Read
Career

How Fitness Saved My Life and Became My Career

Sometimes it takes falling to rock bottom in order to be built back up again. I learned this many years ago when the life I'd carefully built for myself and my family suddenly changed. But in those times, you learn to lean on those who love you – a friend, family member or someone who can relate to what you've been through. I was lucky enough to have two incredible women help me through one of my lowest moments. They taught me to love myself and inspired me to pass on their lessons each da

If it weren't for the empowering women who stepped up and brought fitness back into my life, I wouldn't be standing – in the door of my own business – today.

In 2010, I was a wife, a mother of three, and had filtered in and out of jobs depending on what my family needed from me. At different points in my career, I've worked in the corporate world, been a stay-at-home mom, and even started my own daycare center. Fitness has always been a part of my life, but at that point being a mom was my main priority. Then, life threw a curveball. My husband and I separated, leading to a very difficult divorce.

These were difficult times. I lost myself in the uncertainty of my future and the stress that comes with a divorce and found myself battling anorexia. Over a matter of months, I lost 40 lbs. and felt surrounded by darkness. I was no longer participating in my health and all efforts to stay active came to a halt. I didn't want to leave my home, I didn't' want to talk to people, and I really did not want to see men. Seeing my struggles, first my sister and then a friend, approached me and invited me to visit the gym.

After months of avoiding it, my sister started taking me to the gym right before closing when it wasn't too busy. We started slow, on the elliptical or the treadmill. This routine got me out of the house and slowly we worked to regain my strength and my self-esteem. When my sister moved away, my good friend and personal trainer started working out with me one-on-one early in the morning, taking time out of her busy schedule to keep me on track toward living a healthy life once again. Even when I didn't want to leave the house, she would encourage me to push myself and I knew I didn't want to let her down. She helped me every step of the way. My sister and my friend brought fitness back into my everyday routine. They saved my life.

I began to rely on fitness, as well as faith, to help me feel like myself again. My friend has since moved away, but, these two women made me feel loved, confident and strong with their empowerment and commitment to me. They made such an incredible impact on me; I knew I needed to pay it forward. I wanted to have the same impact on women in my community. I started by doing little things, like running with a woman who just had a baby to keep her inspired and let her know she's not alone. I made sure not to skip my regular runs, just in case there was a woman watching who needed the inspiration to keep going. These small steps of paying it forward helped me find purpose and belonging. This gave me a new mentality that put me on a path to the opportunity of a lifetime – opening a women's only kickboxing gym, 30 Minute Hit.

About four years ago, I was officially an empty nester. It was time to get myself out of the house too and find what I was truly passionate about, which is easier said than done. Sitting behind a desk, in a cubicle, simply didn't cut it. It was hard to go from an active and chaotic schedule to a very slow paced, uneventful work week. I felt sluggish. Even when I moved to another company where I got to plan events and travel, it was enjoyable, but not fulfilling. I wanted to be a source of comfort to those struggling, as my sister and dear friend had been to me. I wanted to impact others in a way that couldn't be done from behind a desk.

I began to rely on fitness, as well as faith, to help me feel like myself again.

When I heard about 30 Minute Hit, I was nervous to take the leap. But the more I learned about the concept, the more I knew it was the perfect fit for me. Opening my own gym where women can come to let go of their struggles, rely on one another and meet new people is the best way for me to pass on the lessons I learned during my darkest times.

Kickboxing is empowering in itself. Add to it a high energy, female-only environment, and you have yourself a powerhouse! The 30 Minute Hit concept is franchised all over North America, acting as a source of release for women who are just trying to get through their day. I see women of all ages come into my gym, kick the heck out of a punching bag and leave with a smile on their face, often times alongside a new friend. 30 Minute Hit offers a convenient schedule for all women, from busy moms to working women, to students and senior citizens. A schedule-free model allows members to come in whenever they have a free half hour to dedicate to themselves. Offering certified training in kickboxing and a safe environment to let go, 30 Minute Hit is the place for women empowerment and personal growth.

Through my journey, I have learned that everyone is going through something – everyone is on their own path. My motivating factor is knowing that I can touch people's lives everyday just by creating the space for encouragement and community. It's so easy to show people you care. That's the type of environment my team, clients and myself have worked hard to create at our 30 Minute Hit location.

Fitness saved my life. If it weren't for the empowering women who stepped up and brought fitness back into my life, I wouldn't be standing – in the door of my own business – today. The perfect example of women empowering women – the foundation to invincibility.

This article was originally published September 12, 2019.