In September, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian attended the Ad Age House event at the U.S. Open, where he was rooting on his wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams, who had stormed back to reach the women's singles finals from life-threatening post-delivery complications after giving birth to their daughter, Olympia, in September 2017. Williams first revealed her ordeal in a February 2018 Vogue cover story.
Ohanian made news of his own with his August 12 New York Times essay, which brought the issue of paternal leave to the forefront: Despite their wealth and privilege, Ohanian needed to be home to care for both his convalescing wife and newborn daughter. And so he took the maximum amount of paid paternity leave Reddit offered at the time—16 weeks. The experience made Ohanian realize that although maternity leave policies in the U.S. are inadequate enough, cultural biases have diminished the role of fathers with newborns, which has had the added effect of putting even more pressure on new mothers, resulting in a more stressful situation for the entire family.
As The List—the advocacy group of 31 industry leaders selected by Ad Age in partnership with Facebook—gathered in New York for Advertising Week, September 23-26, its core issue of progressive corporate family policies couldn't have been more relevant to the ad world. On Monday, September 23, group leaders of The List met for breakfast at Bluebird London with their counterparts at Ad Age and Facebook to recap the work and research they had done to date and to outline plans for sharing that information with the industry and coming up with ways to recognize the agencies and companies with policies worth emulating.
Mike Rothman, CEO and co-founder of Fatherly, reviewed the research team's work, including online seminars with Professor Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, and Dr. Pamela Cohen, principal researcher and data scientist at The Mom Project, and a national Morning Consult survey of more than 2,000 workers on general perceptions of workplace benefits as well as attitudes toward parenting. Santiago Gomez, senior brand manager of Danone, and Natasha Maasri, creative director of The&Partnership, discussed the myriad ways The List could work to counteract negative perceptions in the industry regarding leave policies as well as pursuing further partnerships with groups like PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States) and THAT (Technology, Humans and Taste). Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of Branded Entertainment Network, discussed potential ideas to help educate others on how to increase benefits and support throughout the industry.
Is a comprehensive family leave policy good for business?
A few days later, Rothman was joined onstage at Advertising Week by fellow List members Meredith Guerriero, head of U.S. partnerships at Pinterest; Thai Randolph, GM and EVP of Kevin Hart's Laugh Out Loud network; and Dia Simms, president of Combs Enterprises for the conference's "Future Is Female" track. John Dioso, editor of Ad Age Studio 30, moderated the panel, "Is a Comprehensive Family Leave Policy Good for Business?"
"The idea that women automatically are the ones to take leave doesn't make sense anymore, when women are 40 percent of the breadwinners." —Dia Simms, president, Combs Enterprises
Dioso opened the discussion by asking Simms why at that first meeting back in April the members of The List chose promoting equitable family leave in the industry as its mission over seemingly more obvious issues like climate change or racial and gender diversity and inclusion. "You had a group of brilliant individuals who are leaders in their respective fields," Simms replied. "The one thing that was core to all of us was that change really does start at home. The reality is that if you’re not equipped in your personal life, if you can’t take care of your parents, or your children, or your own health and wellness, how effective can you be solving these larger problems?"
The three List panelists who are parents shared their stories of having children while building thriving careers and brands, and how those experiences made them realize how important parental leave is not just to the industry but to society at large. When Simms was pregnant with her daughter a few years ago and Combs Enterprises HR wanted to discuss her leave options, including taking short-term disability, Chairman and CEO Sean Combs insisted that she be paid her full-time salary both because it was the right thing to do and also to acknowledge that regardless of whether Simms was in the office or home taking care of her infant child, she would continue to be working in her capacity as a top executive at the company.
Simms realized how fortunate she was to work at a small shop and for a supportive and flexible boss. "My friends and peers who work in larger organizations had to take the pay cut [that went along with short-term disability]," Simms pointed out. "One of the things we've found in our research is 25 percent of mothers have to go back to work within two weeks. That's just nuts, and it's bad for all of us as an interconnected society."
"We lose so many incredible, talented women because we don’t make it easy for them to come back." —Meredith Guerriero, head of U.S. partnerships, Pinterest
Guerriero gave birth to her three children before she joined Pinterest, and was lucky enough to have had them while she worked for Google and then Facebook. "With each child I took from five to six months," she said. "I was very grateful that [those companies] had the resources to provide that type of leave, but I understood the majority didn't have that. That's why this topic is such a passion point of mine. And I noticed that it impacts everyone, not only the moms that are actually having the babies. How do you build a culture or a business that can give adequate coverage and support for everyone?"
Another tension point Guerriero noticed was that in addition to providing adequate time for parental leave, companies also need to pay attention to easing the reentry of parents returning to the workforce, which effectively becomes another pane in the glass ceiling. "After you have a baby, there's this cliff," she explained. "We lose so many incredible, talented women because we don’t make it easy for them to come back."
"We appreciate that family leave is a nuanced challenge, but every other country has figured it out." —Thai Randolph, GM and EVP, Kevin Hart's Laugh Out Loud
Randolph offered another perspective on family planning that is only now getting the media attention on a par with its prevalence in our society: "When I was at Facebook, I knew I wanted to have kids, but I didn't think I was ready," she said. Because Facebook's medical insurance covered the procedure, Randolph decided to go through the prescreening process at the NYU fertility clinic. She was on a business trip boarding her flight when the clinic called. The news was devastating: She was diagnosed as irreversibly infertile. "I still remember this day so clearly," Randolph told the audience. "I was so shocked. On a personal level I had to reckon with, how badly do I want this?"
Randolph decided to pursue IVF, but after two rounds the process was unsuccessful. In the meantime, she left Facebook in April 2017 and moved to Los Angeles to join Laugh Out Loud as SVP of marketing and monetization. "I was putting together a go-to-market strategy, enjoying L.A.," she said. "I was able to put the failure behind me. We were set to launch in August. In July I got really faint in the gym one day, and my trainer said, 'Could you be pregnant?' I thought, No, I'm menopausal. They told me this was going to happen early. Turns out I actually was pregnant without assistance! It was this interesting inflection point in my career, because I was giving birth to two babies at the same time—this business that I was super passionate about and a child that I prayed for and thought was out of my reach."
Like all mothers in the U.S., giving birth was just the beginning of tortuous journey for Randolph. Lionsgate's maternity leave policy was a relatively generous three months at full pay, but for Randolph, there were too many hoops to jump through: "There was a disability application, there was a state disability component, there was an insurer's disability component, and there was a ton of paperwork. I remember saying, I'm not doing this! This is ridiculous."
As Laugh Out Loud started to gain more independence from Lionsgate, Randolph found her company was in a similar boat as Simms and Combs Enterprises. "All of a sudden I found myself in charge of finances and HR with a smaller group of dozens, not thousands, figuring out how do we cost-effectively provide a family leave policy that isn’t one size fits all?" she said.
"What I've heard from our employees is that flexibility and compassion is the biggest component of the plan. And the other piece to me is normalizing family life and making sure everyone understands life happens and it’s okay. I work from home on Fridays, because I have to spend time with my kid. If I'm late for a meeting, I make sure to say, 'My kid had a doctor's appointment' or 'My kid isn't feeling well and I don't want him to be alone because he's teething.' It's so important to normalize that—particularly those of us who put so much into our careers, so people don't feel like they're failing us when they have to take care of themselves."
"For every month that a mom may take for family leave, a dad will usually take a day on average, across all industries." —Mike Rothman, CEO, Fatherly
How inadequate paternal leave hurts both parents
Rothman, the only non-parent on the panel, explained that while he doesn't have any children, he has worked with fatherless kids for 20 years first as a Big Brother and then with Career Gear, a dress-for-success organization that helps young men from troubled backgrounds enter the workforce. He co-founded the parenting site Fatherly after running Thrillist, a city guide for young single people. After ten years, Rothman reasoned, those people weren't "as young and single as they used to be." He added that Fatherly's mission is so perfectly aligned with that of The List that "at that first meeting I actually thought I was being punked."
Indeed, Rothman and Fatherly's involvement in The List helped drive the discussion to recognize how, as with Alexis Ohanian and Serena Williams, our culture's historical tendency to diminish the father's role in the immediate aftermath of a child's birth is harmful to each parent and to the entire family.
"For every month that a mom may take for family leave, a dad will usually take a day on average, across all industries," Rothman said. "And I think the reason for that is both personal and professional. A lot of companies that have been more male dominated for a long period of time don't have the same awareness or sensitivity."
"With my first child, my husband got zero days," Guerreiro added. "He worked for a company that has been around for a hundred years and is one of the largest tech companies out there. The women don't get a choice. A lot of our husbands or partners don't get parental leave, so it's just assumed that we don't go back to work. You have to take your entire parental leave to take care of the baby. "
"The idea that women automatically are the ones to take the leave doesn't make sense anymore, when women are 40 percent of the breadwinners now," Simms pointed out. "The original intent no longer exists. It's outdated."
"Even if there is a policy in place," Rothman emphasized, "often it might be lip service, because culturally there may be middle managers who just don't get it: 'Well, I had to go through this, so you're going to have to go through this too.' That's wildly unproductive. We're trying to coach middle management, as well as work with companies to help address policy to make sure there's change at all levels in an organization."
"On a family leave policy level, the U.S. ranks last out of all 190 developed countries," Rothman said. "It's shameful, but there seems to be a groundswell of support. The more people talk about this, the more a movement builds."
So what can The List do to effect that change?
"We want to make a statement," Guerriero said. "We need to make a splash with some of the research that we've done. What kind of awards programs can we have to highlight companies that are doing it well? Do they have flexible work schedules? Is it because of their actual parental leave? And then from there you can ask more provocative questions: If it really is about money, ask your employees, because most likely they would value flexibility and parental leave over higher pay. We're hoping that you get more bees with honey, highlighting the companies that are doing really well, and not just including the Googles and Facebooks of the world, but other companies that are starting to make it work—and how are they doing that."
"We're not saying companies are are driving folks into the ground and are anti-family," Randolph explained. "How do you make a business case to them that this isn't just goodwill but this is good for business? And how do you give them the tools to implement that? Are there innovative ways to incentivize other members on the team to share work or are there other levers like flexible leave? We appreciate that family leave is a nuanced challenge, but every other country has figured it out."
Family issues spread to the 2020 election
The broader issue of how the lack of adequate family policies in the workplace adversely affects gender equality has even made its way into the 2020 presidential campaign: Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, came under fire after a conservative news outlet doubted her 2007 story that she was fired from a teaching job back in the 1970s when her employers discovered she was pregnant. The backlash to the backlash was swift and fierce, and women came out in force to defend Warren and share their own horror stories on social media, which prompted the Massachusetts senator to post a video of her reading and responding to their tweets.
After I became visibly pregnant, I was told that the job I'd been promised for next year would go to someone else. Pregnancy discrimination is real, and it still happens today—but telling our stories is one way we can fight back. Here are some of your stories that I heard today. pic.twitter.com/x1pe2ikzTr— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 9, 2019
"As we think about changing this," Simms said, it's important to understand the history behind why leave policies in the U.S. are so regressive when compared with the rest of the industrial world. "We have to think about how deeply embedded it is structurally," she explained. After World War II in Europe, because so many men had died, parental leave was implemented to help revive both the economy and the population, as more women needed to enter the workforce. In the United States, because more men survived and were returning home, women were discouraged from continuing to work. So rather than building the infrastructure to support the women who were working at that time, the women were in effect told to go home to take care of the children.
"This has to be bigger than a business case," Simms argued. "There are real-life societal implications here. What we’re doing is very obviously and evidently not working in the United States. As Americans we spend so much money and attention on the last five years—college and prep school—instead of prenatal and birth. And that really is the time that is instrumental in laying the foundation of each individual, which is the entire foundation of our nation."