As The List geared up for the launch of its signature "Ask About It" campaign, representatives of the advocacy group of industry leaders selected by Ad Age in partnership with Facebook spent the last week of January spreading the message of family-forward parental leave policies from Park City, Utah, to Davos, Switzerland. List members Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of Branded Entertainment Network, and Thai Randolph, GM and VP of Kevin Hart's Laugh Out Loud network, joined John Dioso, editor of Ad Age Studio 30, at the Female Quotient's Equality Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 miles away, Heidi Waldusky, Ad Age's GM and associate publisher, rubbed elbows with leaders from some of the biggest corporations and largest economies on the globe at the World Economic Forum.
The first step
The Female Quotient has been advocating for gender equality since 2013. In 2012, CEO Shelley Zalis introduced the first Girls' Lounge at CES simply because she didn't want to feel like the sole woman walking the overwhelmingly male-dominated show floor. Since then, TFQ's signature pop-up experience—now known as the Equality Lounge—has spread to most major conferences and events around the world, including Cannes Lions, SXSW, Advertising Week, DMEXCO and Davos, as well as this year's Democratic and Republican national conventions. So when TFQ asked The List to speak at the Equality Lounge at Sundance this year, the group leapt at the opportunity to spread the word among the Hollywood community about its mission advocating for progressive corporate family benefits in the industry.
Many of the top entertainment companies in the world are multinational conglomerates with the revenues and stature to offer employees benefits that are above and beyond what the typical U.S. worker gets. (According to a national survey overseen by List member Michael Ramlet of Morning Consult, almost three-quarters of Americans get less than eight weeks of paid parental leave, for example.) The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that companies like Netflix and NBCUniversal offer comparatively extravagant benefits including unlimited paid parental leave, coverage of IVF treatments up to $20,000, and shipping breast milk for mothers who have to travel for work.
But as The List members have discovered from their research and their own anecdotal experiences as both parents and business leaders, just because a company has excellent benefits doesn't mean that the company's employees feel empowered to take advantage of them. The List's panel at the Equality Lounge, which kicked off TFQ's Sundance Festival programming, focused on the theme "Why Forward-Thinking Family Leave Policies Are Just the First Step," because the group's members have come to the realization that a company's culture is just as important as the actual leave policies on the books.
Butler told the story of how he was so inspired by the first meeting of The List in New York in April 2019 that he immediately began re-examining BEN's leave policies upon returning to work.
"I realized, holy shit, I have not even thought about our own plan," Butler said. "I was running this company of 200 employees, and I didn't even understand how the plan worked. It was one of those things that just really got me much more involved, and we made some very bold changes, quickly. I made everybody in HR and operations sweat. I was like, 'What's going on here?'"
Similarly, Randolph remembered how, like many ambitious, hard-working execs on the rise, she didn't give much thought to the nuts and bolts of maternity leave until she actually got pregnant—which came as a surprise after a tortuous and ultimately unsuccessful experience with IVF, and soon after starting at LOL.
"We were a joint venture with Lionsgate," Randolph said. "I was starting a big job. We were launching this new company, and I had resigned myself to the fact that having kids the way I thought I would probably wouldn't happen for me, and I decided to throw myself into work for the foreseeable future. Then, three months after taking the job, I turned up pregnant. It was one of those things where it's kind of like flood insurance: You don't really think about it until you need it, so even as an executive in the company who was leading this P&L and running all the operations for this business unit, I never really thought about what the parental leave package looked like. You don't really consider it until you have to take advantage of it. I was really surprised by how complicated the process was."
Ask About It
While no two List members had exactly the same aha moment, their common experience led the group to decide that its signature initiative would be a marketing and social media campaign called "Ask About It," Randolph told the Equality Lounge audience. "Once we settled on this issue, it was essentially addressing the question, How do you boil the ocean? Should we take a top-down approach? Should we target executives and HR professionals? Or should we issue a rallying cry to everyone to say, 'Demand better leave.' What was so impactful [going back to the first List meeting in April was], we were having a conversation."
The goal of the campaign, which launches in February to coincide with the anniversary of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), is "to spread the message to have that conversation," Randolph continued. "Whether or not you're in the stage of family planning, or you're thinking about elder care, or whatever, just know the policy, number one. Have a conversation with the executives in your company. If you're an executive, have a conversation with your team. But say, 'Hey, what do you think about our policy? What is our policy? What options are available? How flexible is this?' Or, 'Did you know that this company is doing x?'"
For Butler, "Ask About It" touches on the revealing and sometimes uncomfortable conversations he had with employees when he first started investigating how to improve BEN's leave policies, and he quickly realized that as the CEO, changing the culture of the company began with himself: When his second child was born, Butler returned to work after just two days, which he regretted as a "horrible message" to send his employees. "It was very inconsiderate of me, not just to my family, but to the overall organization," Butler said. "Leaders need to make these policies happen, and take full advantage of those policies, and give an example that everyone should be doing that. It's just going to make people healthier."
Having those conversations led to the implementation of better leave policies at BEN, which included moving beyond gender-specific policies, like maternity leave and paternity leave. "We have primary caregiver leave and secondary caregiver leave," Butler said. Primary caregiver leave increased from 10 weeks to 16 weeks, with an additional month as a transitional period. "If you need to be home longer, you need to stay home longer and you work from home, or you just have that extra time to transition," Butler explained. Secondary caregiver leave increased from two weeks to a month, with another month for the transition period.
In the past year, LOL spun off from Lionsgate, and so Randolph is experiencing the "Ask About It" initiative in real time. "Now that we're more independent," she said, "I'm actually writing our new leave policy, which has been largely informed by my personal experience and a lot of the feedback that I've been getting from the employees there."
Good family policies, good business
Both Butler and Randolph conceded that just as a company's employees have to find the right work-life balance, they as corporate leaders also have to strike the right balance between providing the optimal benefits packages for their workers and running a successful and profitable business. List member Mike Rothman's parenting site Fatherly has published multiple articles on the business case for offering and encouraging generous paternity leave and the wide-ranging, positive effects doing so can have on the workforce as a whole.
Yet the reality on the ground, particularly at smaller companies, including Fatherly, as Rothman acknowledged during an earlier List panel at Advertising Week New York, is having employees out on parental leave does place added responsibilities on the remainder of the staff. To address this at BEN, Butler decided that "when people are taking leave, we made it so those who take on more responsibility are compensated for taking on more work and wearing more hats. When we made these changes, it was amazing the positive energy that came from our organization. People felt way more valued, and we now have a lot of people trying to work for us. It was beneficial to our employees, prospective employees, and also to ourselves. We've found some rock stars in the process, when key team members and key leaders took parental leave. Certain people were able to accelerate their careers, and show that when they're under pressure and they have a lot more to do, they can make stuff happen."
The positive effects of implementing a more progressive leave policy has extended beyond BEN's walls too, Butler said. "We've had a lot of clients reach out and say, 'You know what, we really respect what you guys are doing.' Who had any idea that a parental leave policy would make that much positive change?"
Redefining stakeholder capitalism at the WEF
Eight time zones—but just one Equality Lounge—away, The List took its first steps to sharing its message with the international community during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, the buzz around the annual gathering of global business and political leaders and economists was dominated by the climate change crisis, which coincided with the official theme for the conference, "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World."
As Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff commented during a panel on stakeholder capitalism, "Capitalism as we have known it is dead. This obsession that we have with maximizing profits for shareholders alone has led to incredible inequality and a planetary emergency." Stakeholder capitalism, Benioff continued, means companies have to fight for its employees, its customers and members of its community. "Every CEO has a responsibility to think about all stakeholders."
But among the 3,000-plus attendees at Davos, there were multiple avenues to help make stakeholder capitalism a viable idea. Perhaps the the busiest spot outside the Congress Center, where the major meetings were held, was the Female Quotient's Equality Lounge, which hosted over 50 panels over three days. The conversations drew packed houses for everyone from author and activist Gigi Gorgeous to JPMorgan’s chairman and CEO, Jamie Dimon. “Our space is a catalyst for change,” Shelley Zalis, founder and CEO of the Female Quotient, told Ad Age's Waldusky. “We go beyond talking about the problems and move forward together with action and impact.”
With square footage a precious commodity in Davos, the WEF offered Zalis digs in the roomier and officially sanctioned Grandhotel Belvedere, where, it argued, the lounge would have more space to spread out. “I refused,” Zalis said, choosing a more accessible space across the street. “I won’t go anywhere that’s not inclusive”—a reference not only to the WEF’s hierarchy of hotel access badges, but also a nod to the conference's dearth of women, who made up only 24 percent of this year’s attendees.
The lack of female representation is just one of dozens of stats that are bandied about in Davos as academics, activists and business executives addressed a range of global issues, including mental health, the future of the workforce, diversity and inclusion, as well as the climate crisis. The numbers increasingly show that what’s good for business is tied to what’s good for the world.
Walking the walk
During an Equality Lounge panel, an audience member asked Carolyn Tastad, P&G's group president of North America and chief sales officer, if the company had "implemented required paternity leave, and if so, how do you create a culture that supports that?" Tastad brought up P&G's "Share the Care" paternal leave program.
"One of the things we're doing at Davos is making visible the blind spots that get in the way of us seeing the total picture and really ensuring that we're going to create the opportunity for a more equal world," Tastad said. "And one of those examples is how you think about parenting leave. We spent a lot of time talking about sufficient paid maternity leave, which is critically important, but insufficient. We also talked about how we have to have sufficient paid paternity leave. We have paid paternity leave at P&G in every country in the world, and we spend a lot of time talking about how to make sure we encourage people to take it."
Tastad shared a couple of examples of the challenges P&G has faced changing corporate cultural attitudes toward paternity leave: "When we first put the program in place in the U.S., a young finance manager whose wife was just about to deliver their first second child, said, 'I don't know. This is the first time. Should I really take it?' When he talked to his leader, who was working in my organization, she said, 'Listen, you're going to be in trouble if you don't take it.' We're trying not to bully people, but we really want people to see the value. Another thing we've learned is we didn't have enough guardrails around it. People were taking leave in sessions. Someone said to me, 'I'm taking paternity leave, and my wife and son and I are going on a two-week trip.' I was like, 'That's not really the intention of paternity leave. I want you to get into the daily grind and really understand it.'"
In a spirited discussion during another Equality Lounge panel, Unilever's CEO, Alan Jope, and TFQ's Zalis discussed the Dove Men+Care campaign advocating for paid paternity leave for all men worldwide. Asking whether it was better to advocate for 30 weeks of paid leave to be evenly split between mothers and fathers, or to give 27 weeks to mothers and three weeks to fathers, Jope shocked most of the audience when he said research had proved the latter was the better solution—at least given the current circumstances.
"If you have 30 weeks that can be allocated between a couple," Jope explained, "what happens is all 30 weeks go to the woman, and you end up with men not taking parental leave. We don't bust the norm of men not taking leave. We don't get men in the habit of giving care. We don't get men in the habit of child raising being a shared responsibility."
Zalis countered with "option three: 27 and 27." Referring to a Harvard Business Review study, Zalis explained: "When paternity leave is an elective, only 34 percent of men will take it, because they're afraid it will show a sign of weakness. And when they do take it—don't get mad at me—they play more golf. When you look at the countries that are advancing equality, the Nordic countries, the No. 1 reason is parental leave. Men opt in." Citing Jope's predecessor, Paul Polman, Zalis argued, "When men didn't take it, he would call them in and say, 'Why aren't you taking it? We want caregivers as leaders: nurturing, empathetic, passionate. And if you do 27-3, it still seems like you're making it a female issue."
Zalis agreed with Jope's request to give Dove Men+Care credit for "taking a leading step, but we won't call it the finish line." But when Jope asked his colleague Jonathan if he spent his three weeks of paternity leave playing golf, Jonathan answered, "No golf. But it was three months."
Let's call it win-win, but with the Fortune 500 list facing a 50 percent turnover rate within the next 10 years, the urgency to remain relevant to the next generation, which demands that stakeholder capitalism be redefined, is palpable. "We have to walk the walk," as Leon Kalvaria, chairman of Citigroup's Institutional Clients Group, remarked at the Equality Lounge, echoing what Ricky Ray Butler of BEN said on another panel at another Equality Lounge half a world away. "We're in an enviroment right now where if we do not conduct business in a good way, it's not enough to make good profits. If we are not regarded as a great employer, our clients will not want to be with us."