Maternity Leave Madness

It’s not breaking news that maternity leave policies in the U.S. leave something to be desired. And by something to be desired, I mean they’re pathetic.

With both of my kids, I was “lucky” because I was able to take three months (R) and two months (MK) of paid leave. My husband and I wanted to take our leave sequentially, so we could extend the at-home time with the baby before full-time daycare. But he wasn’t allowed to take sick-leave past the eight mark. Apparently, caring for a newborn baby is not considered a medical requirement – you know, because they’re so independent at two months old. I was also “lucky” that I was able keep up with emails while I was home on maternity leave. This was a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it made transitioning back to work a little less stressful; on the other hand, it was a distraction that kept me from making the most of my few months home.

Maternity Multitasking

Maternity leave multi-tasking.

After my maternity leave was over, I had no option to transition slowly back into work – it was all or nothing. To add insult to injury, I had to use all my sick and annual leave to get paid during maternity leave, meaning I returned to work with ZERO hours of leave on the books. Not good when you have a kid in daycare (i.e. constant colds). And God forbid you want to take an actual vacation (because maternity leave is so relaxing!). The crazy thing is, I’m one of the lucky Americans who at least has some paid parental leave. According to statistics Sheryl Sandberg cites in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead “Forty percent of employed mothers lack sick days and vacation leave, and about 50 percent of employed mothers are unable to take time off to care for a sick child. Only about half of women receive any pay during maternity leave.” And we wonder why working moms are stretched and stressed?!!?

I’m sure most of you have read (or read about) Lean In. I loved it. Alone, the arguments weren’t groundbreaking. But I loved the smart way she dug into a broad, controversial, emotional subject (motherhood, work, and life balance) and backed it up with facts, figures, and examples. I liked that she started a dialogue on issues that mattered to me. Her book – and the publicity it received – validated my feelings. Instead of feeling whiny, I felt energized. It spurred both women and men to have tough talks about why women are underrepresented in the executive levels of business and government and how to change this. At the end of the day, a woman struggling to balance everything will need a reliable partner and they need to be part of the dialogue too.

That’s why reading this Washington Post article (posted by a male friend!) on Vodafone’s new global maternity leave policy, which sets a minimum for maternity leave, made my day. It’s awesome to see a company leaning in and changing the way women are expected to behave in the workplace and at home. The best part? Vodafone isn’t changing their policy because a government regulation told them to. They’ve changed it because it’s good for their business and their employees. According to the Post article:

Indeed, talent retention was one of the very goals Vodafone had in mind when it designed its new policy. On a global level, women comprise roughly 35 percent of Vodafone’s employees, but only 21 percent of its international senior leadership team. Moreover, 65 percent of the women in the past who opted to leave the company following maternity leave did so within the first year.

Sharon Doherty, a director at Vodafone who was the architect of the new policies, went looking for ways to address those numbers. She noticed that in Italy, Portugal and Romania, where mandates are in place for companies to help women transition back into the workplace after maternity leave, the company’s retention rate was higher. “That led me to ask more questions and find out why,” she said. She decided to pitch the idea of a company-wide global policy.

It’s so refreshing to hear an international company recognize that women–with or without children–bring something special to the workforce. And taking leave to care for our children shouldn’t mean we have to sit in the penalty box for a few years (until the kids are old enough to care for themselves and we can return to work). Because the truth is — and Sheryl (my buddy) talks a lot about this in her book — the longer you’re out of the workforce, the harder it is to get back in. I wish I’d had maternity leave options like the ones Vodaphone is proposing and hope this is the first of many companies to think smart and change the way the do business.

Kudos to you, Vodafone!

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