Pinterest's Meredith Guerriero on changing the face of parental leave
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in the United States—the only industrialized country in the world with no policy requiring companies to provide family leave—only 17 percent of workers have access to paid family benefits, leaving more than 80 percent of the country’s workforce without support leading up to, during and following childbirth. According to advocacy group PL+US (Paid Leave in the United States), one in four women in the U.S. will return to work within 10 days of giving birth, not nearly enough time to physically and emotionally recover from childbirth.
But the ad tech industry increasingly stands apart, says Meredith Guerriero, head of U.S. partnerships at Pinterest and a member of The List, the industry advocacy group formed by Ad Age in partnership with Facebook last year. “I think a lot of other industries are starting to see what these companies have done, the types of talent they retain and the types of talent that want to work for them because of those benefits.” A mother of three, Guerriero attributes much of her success to having had access to comprehensive parental leave benefits. “I was at Google for the first two, Facebook with my youngest, and I came over to Pinterest when he was about one,” says Guerriero. “With three children ages eight and under, there’s never a dull moment at home.”
At Pinterest, both moms and dads have access to 16 weeks of paid leave, plus four weeks as a transition month (parents can come in once a week with 100 percent pay), $5k in benefits for adoption and $20k in benefits for surrogacy. Also included is coverage for two IVF Smart Cycles, egg-freezing, breast pumps, lactation consultants and a range of therapy and support groups. Having seen the spectrum of coverage—or lack thereof—offered to mothers and fathers in the U.S., Guerriero is committed to what she describes as a changing of the guard: seeing more people step into leadership positions who are willing to change the face of family leave and dismantling the stigma surrounding those who take it.
As a member of The List, Guerriero is part of the team of industry leaders behind the recent launch of the "Ask About It" campaign, a program aimed at raising awareness around family-forward policies with a focus on parental leave. Ad Age Studio 30 spoke with Guerriero about the current state of parental leave policies in the U.S., how motherhood has made her a more effective leader and why family-forward benefits are critical to attracting and retaining talent in 2020.
Tell us a bit about the Ask About It initiative.
When The List was created, we all started to talk about the topics and things we would like to change within the industry, and parental leave quickly started to bubble up. Ask About It was designed to build a groundswell of awareness and also make companies feel more accountable for what these family policies are. It can’t just be a top-down effort; we thought it really needed to be built from the ground up. There are three key focuses around the initiative: Create the mindset and bring awareness that it’s ok to ask about it; advocate for change; and celebrate the wins. It’s been a labor of love. I’m super grateful for everything Ben and Evan do to support this at Pinterest, and I’m committed to that change for the future. [Editor's note: Pinterest Co-Founders Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp are also the company's CEO and chief content officer, respectively.]
How has parental leave affected your family?
I was fortunate to have very good maternity leave, anywhere from five to six months. It’s really allowed me to take the time to at least enjoy being a mom. Each re-entry was actually very different from the previous one. I was able to grow and understand what it was like as I added another child to the family and to adjust to that. That time allowed me that connection and also a lack of feeling stress or the discomfort of being pulled in each direction.
What kind of impact has it had on you professionally?
There’s a funny story with each mat leave—right around three-and-a-half months, you start to get into a schedule, and I started to come up with new ideas, wanting to get back into the groove of developing business plans. My husband would be like, “OK, time for you to go back to work.” If I didn’t have that time, I don’t know that I would have felt ready. In terms of career trajectory, being a mom for the first time allows you to put things into perspective and better compartmentalize when you’re at home versus when you’re at work. You’re a little more deliberate with your time. It forces you to prioritize and become a better leader, and you usually have more empathy, as well. I was bringing those qualities to my leadership style and growing in that way, and I think that’s really helped. Who I am at home is who I am at work, and I would say with each child, I’ve learned and have actually come back to a role with a bigger scope and greater responsibility.
How can paid leave for parents, or lack thereof, affect a company?
I think it’s about talent and retention. The companies that don’t offer benefits, especially based on the way in which the new generations make decisions, are not going to be able to compete with the companies that do offer it. I’ve seen the gamut, and I see the outcome of when you do provide that flexibility and the time that’s needed, and you just get so much more from your employees. As I mentioned, people want to work for a company with those values. If I were in an industry that didn’t allow me the flexibility to work from home or have parental leave, that wouldn’t be my best work.
Isn't it cost-prohibitive for some companies to provide paid leave?
Almost all our work with The List has been asking these questions of various HR groups in companies across industries, and it usually comes down to cost. But the flip side of that is, if you look at, for instance, my career trajectory, there’s a real opportunity where it doesn’t need extra cost. Almost with every new leadership opportunity, we can tie it back to some kind of leave coverage. It allows people to step into those roles and build up your bench. The second is that if you look at the next generation, they will say that compensation is not their No. 1 motivating factor for joining a company. A lot of them actually care more about these types of benefits, so a company could start moving to offset those costs. The third is starting to make rotations where the expectation is that folks step up and help cover longer leaves, providing other perks instead of just looking at it from a cost basis. I don’t think it needs to just be looked at regarding children—it’s a family-first environment. There are a lot of us in the sandwich generation who have to take care of our parents and our children. Life happens, so you should have that type of flexibility, whether it’s a parental leave or some other requirement where you need the company to support you.
How can it impact office culture?
I’ll use my example. I lead with complete trust and transparency. When I have something with my children—a game, a school play, etc.—I’m very transparent as to why I’m not at work, because I don’t want anyone filling in the blanks for me, and I think it also sets that tone and culture. I don’t need to know where you are at every point in the day and when your dentist’s appointments are, but there has to be that trust as well as transparency from the leadership team so that people understand that everyone has commitments and other things outside their jobs. We need to support that, whether it’s travel or the non-negotiables about being there for children. I think the more we talk about it, the better it is, and the more it starts to create that natural environment for everyone. If you’re really good at your job and you have these other things going on, depending on where you are in your life stages, that’s OK. A company can view you as being so valuable that they want to retain you, and it’s good for their business. In terms of diversity, you need folks from every type of background and experience to make sure you’re building the best kind of company.
If I didn't have such generous maternity leave and if I was forced to choose, I probably would have made the choice to stay at home with the kids—as much as I love leading teams and working in ad tech. I probably would not be where I am today, and my life and career would be very different. Whether that’s good or bad, right or wrong, it wouldn’t be my choice.
What is the psychological toll on mothers forced to return to work immediately postpartum? On families? On businesses?
It definitely pulls at your heartstrings. I have a lot of friends and co-workers who did not receive the generous types of leave or benefits that I had, and I have seen the toll that it takes. More and more, I think it affects women’s mentorship initiatives because [female higher-ups] feel like they have to make a choice. If I reflect back, as much as I love leading teams and working in ad tech, if I was forced to choose, I probably would have made the choice to stay at home with the kids. I probably would not be where I am today, and my life and career would be very different. Whether that’s good or bad, right or wrong, it wouldn’t be my choice. Those circumstances would be dictating it, versus having the choice to do it for myself, for my children to help pave the way.
Do you believe there is a maternity wage gap in the U.S. hindering the career advancement of mothers?
I would say so. In my opinion, there are a couple things at play: the drop-off of women returning to the workforce; their wanting to take on more responsibility or leadership roles, which is why it’s so hard to battle those percentages; and unconscious bias. When you’re out on mat leave, it’s kind of like you’re out of sight, out of mind. I remember having a situation where I was not promoted because I was on mat leave. They will say it’s not because of that, but I think about all the women I know who have had similar situations. So, in terms of that bias or gap, I believe it’s very much still there.
Do you believe there is a stigma around taking extended leave from work?
This is where I think things are kind of changing. What’s happening now is that there are leaders like myself and folks within The List who are making it transparent. As more of us reach senior-level positions, we’re going to see this changing of the guard, and I think it’s going to become better and better for both moms and dads to take leave. I think the stigma is there for men, as well. There are men who receive the same benefits and feel like they can’t take it. That really needs to change if we’re going to have a domino effect and change the perception of what it means for a company to have these types of benefits.
How do you think your life might have been different had you not had access to parental leave?
I honestly don’t think I would be in the position that I’m in and/or working. It might have been a completely different path for me. I love what I do, I love my team, but I love my family more. Having my longer mat leave allowed me to come back with confidence, knowing that I could do it and I didn’t have all this guilt. You’ll always have mom guilt or parent guilt, but I came back with less of it because my companies were always supportive of it and I was always open and honest about working from home on Fridays, if I need my mornings or I need my nights, and it was all okay. But if I hadn’t had that, my husband and I would have had very different conversations, and I think that definitely by the second or third, I would have been taken out of the workforce.