If January is any indication, 2023 is going to be an important year for turning up the volume on the struggles new parents face in the workplace. As a lawyer and working parent, I first tuned into the story that went viral in the legal press beginning around January 10, about a grossly inappropriate text message a law firm attorney sent to a former associate who left after her maternity leave. Then, on January 22, I spotted the Washington Post piece entitled “WNBA player Dearica Hamby says Aces ‘bullied’ her over pregnancy.” The legal and athletic professions may be worlds apart, but these stories share a common theme.
In the case involving legal professionals, an employment lawyer named Joe Dileno, who was then a senior attorney at Zashin & Rich, a Cleveland-based law firm, sent a text message to a former colleague who had left the firm after returning from maternity leave. In his message, Dileno called this associate “soul-less and morally bankrupt” for leaving the firm. “What you did – collecting salary from the firm while sitting on your a–, except to find time to interview for another job – says everything one needs to know about your character. Karma’s a b—h.” Though the firm ultimately parted ways with Dileno, it first issued a defensive-sounding statement calling his text a “heat-of-the-moment” response and noting that the associate had taken a new job “within days of her return to work.”
Fast-forward not even two weeks, and we hear from former Las Vegas Aces WNBA star Dearica Hamby that she was bullied by the management of her former team when she became pregnant with her second child. Hamby says that she was both asked about whether her pregnancy was planned, and then chided for “not taking precautions to not get pregnant.” She has since been traded to the Los Angeles Sparks and wrote that “Being traded is part of the business. Being lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against is not.”
The problem in both of these cases isn’t one of policies. Both the WNBA and Zashin & Rich had maternity leave policies in place. One key issue here is what the parental leave community refers to as “winning the manager lottery.” According to Benefit Bump’s Mom Survey, more than a third of new parents who leave their jobs do so because of “poor manager support.”
Employers, please pause and ask yourselves this question: do you build any training around managing parental leaves into your education for the managers, partners, counsel, etc. at your organization? If not, prioritize this issue now. Don’t do it because legal risk and employee retention are on the line. Do it because your employees deserve to be treated with respect when they do the very human thing of having a child.
When you formally educate your managers, teach them about your organization’s parental leave-related policies and benefits, the laws that apply, and who they can turn to for support in managing a parental leave on their team. Don’t stop there, though. Educate them about the well-documented maternal biases (see Brigid Schulte’s work) and fatherhood forfeits (see Jasmine Kelland’s research) that lead so many of us to make inaccurate assumptions about caregivers. Teach them about Yale neuroscientist Dr. Ruth Feldman’s findings, too, that show the remarkable neuroplasticity for adults in the year following the birth of a child, and Amy Henderson’s work on the career-critical skills that parenthood promotes. Give them facts about the supply-and-demand nature of breastfeeding, and show them how to protect employee rights under the new PUMP Act.
Above all, emphasize that parental leave is a normal part of a career, and that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. Research shows that “in companies where the managers recognized parental leave as no more than a brief interlude in a person’s long-term career … [and where there was a] supportive company culture, [employees] reported a renewed energy and focus for their work, a feeling of being valued, and an enhancement of professional relationships.” (See research by David Collings, Yseult Freeney, and Lisa van der Werff.)
As an employer, you may hope this “old school thinking” dwindles as the “bad actors” retire. But simply crossing your fingers and hoping that nothing goes wrong in the meantime is not a successful strategy. When the same bullying and undermining of new parents exists in professions as different as law and professional sports, it’s a red flag that there are systemic biases at work, not just a few bad apples in your midst.
Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, believes in empowering working parents. She is the founder and CEO of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and co-host of the Parents at Work Podcast. She is mama to two wonderful red-headed boys (ages 10 and 12) and is a health care lawyer in private practice. Her thought leadership has been featured in publications including Forbes, The Washington Post, New York Times Parenting, and Thrive Global.
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