Your coworker just told you she's having a baby, and you're *so* happy for her—but that doesn't mean you're not terrified at the prospect of covering for her while she's OOO for several weeks. In this week’s Good@Work column, all-around boss Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of Cosmopolitan.com and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—shares why preparing for your coworker going on maternity leave means advocating for your company to better support women in the workplace.
A woman on my team told me in January that she's expecting a baby in the middle of the summer. That's a few months away, but my brain immediately started thinking about what projects we have liability on if she leaves and where we can start filling gaps for her absence. How do you plan for someone on your team going on maternity leave without prematurely excluding them from career-progressing projects?
Here’s what you need: money. It’s that simple. Go ask your boss for money. Paper. Moolah. Whatever you call it, not having budget for this very scenario is why you feel anxiety about someone on your team going through the excruciatingly normal thing that is birth. Unfortunately, most workplaces don’t want to invest in women, the majority of whom will become moms who need to return to work. Hence, women don’t receive adequate support from the Company (your bosses) or the Boss (you).
But you need money not only to cover several months of your employee’s maternity leave (I hope she gets at least that), but also to find a temp to cover for her. You need money to have that person start at least three weeks before your employee goes into labor, and to stay three weeks after she gets back. While she and your employee overlap, they should go to meetings together and start projects together. You also need leeway from your boss to look for this person with the help of your pregnant employee. (This might look like getting excused from a meeting so you can interview candidates.)
You are unsure of how to provide this support because your employer hasn’t provided you with the advice, training, or cash required to actually do it.
Involving your employee in the hiring and on-boarding of her temporary replacement should help absolve you of that desire to reassign her projects to other team members; she can handle them until the day she leaves, and you'll both know the work will be in good hands with the temp until she's back after healing from birth, a traumatic biological function that medically requires recovery yet is more likely than not to be treated like a hideous inconvenience in most American workplaces.
You would think the remarkably high percentage of women who become mothers in this country (86 percent of women aged 40 to 44 are moms, according to 2018 research from Pew) would force employers to better prepare for maternity leave. And yet, if women are lucky, their employer is concerned enough with the legal fees and public scrutiny that may result from getting sued for discriminating against pregnant women that they’ll do the bare minimum. Many employers don’t worry even this much, and therefore don’t bother to abide by laws that require perfectly reasonable things like, say, a pumping room upon a nursing woman’s return to work. This is why too many of us are forced to pump in bathrooms (gross), closets (awful), or break rooms without locks where Stan eats a salami sandwich every day (revolting). It’s demeaning and infuriating and women deserve better.
American employers are so ill-equipped to support pregnant and postpartum employees that people like you are burdened with questions like this. This is why postpartum care must extend to work in the form of professional and emotional support codified into the employee handbook and company culture. You are unsure of how to provide this support because your employer hasn’t provided you with the advice, training, or cash required to actually do it.
Here’s my dream for women who have babies and have to go back to their jobs afterward: companies have policies for what happens before, during, and after every woman’s leave that their teams can follow so that women can leave and return to work feeling healed and supported, and no one in her orbit feels overworked from filling in for her. The policies should be adaptable, because births and recoveries vary, and they should be created in accordance with laws designed to prevent discrimination. They should not be there only because of the laws and because of a company’s fear of getting sued and publicly shamed. They should be there because companies actually care about the women in its employ, because they care about attracting more women to work there in the future, and because they care about retaining women employees for a longer period of time.
If your company won’t give you money or support, which is more likely than not, your job is simple: Don’t leave your employee out of projects.
These policies should also be there to instill a sense of security in people like you, because if managers don’t know how to protect women who leave for months to have babies, how will anyone ensure that having babies won’t hinder a woman’s professional advancement?
So, go ask your boss for money, and use it to start a conversation about how you can better support women who go on maternity leave and how you’d be better at your job if you felt equipped to do this. If your company won’t give you money or support, which is more likely than not, your job is simple: Don’t leave your employee out of projects. Include her. Ask her how she’d like to be updated or if she even wants to be updated while she’s on leave. Meet with her to come up with a plan to get her work covered.
She didn’t have to tell you in January that she’s expecting this summer. She could have put it off out of fear that it would hurt her professional standing. She did you a courtesy by telling you early. You should treat her in kind and give her the courtesy of not allowing her career to get sidetracked by a life event she should have every right to enjoy without being marginalized.
Amy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.
Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for her newsletter here.
Have a career question for Amy? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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