It started with a tweet.
Okay, it actually started before that. For a few years now, I’ve known I want to be a mom. But since I discovered the wonderful world of advertising, I’ve wanted to be a glass-ceiling-smashing creative, too. In 2021, like most people, I gained a lot of clarity around what’s most important to me in the next phase of my career. That led to a conversation with my fiancé about when we might like to become parents, and I started paying attention to the ways ad agencies support working parents for the first time. And I didn’t necessarily like everything I saw.
So with working parents all over the world struggling to find a new normal, I turned to the women of advertising. The industry has never been considered-parent friendly and, even under normal circumstances, a conversation is long overdue. Like I said, it started with a Tweet: Share your motherhood experiences with me. Do you feel pressure to rise to a certain level in your career before you become a mother? What do your maternity leave policies look like? How has becoming a working mother in advertising changed you?
The results were a mixed bag of not only relentless optimism but also some brutal honesty. For some women, surrounded by other working moms and generous maternity leave policies, balancing it all became a complicated, but not unachievable, act. For others, the rose-colored glasses came off. The money and upward mobility they enjoyed pre-children fell out of reach. I expected to hear some unpleasant anecdotes, but some of it was genuinely hard to swallow and terrifying to imagine dealing with myself.
The Situation at Hand
In the U.S., paid maternity leave isn’t federally mandated. Only 21% of private-sector employees had access to paid family leave in 2020. 64 million millennials are expected to become parents in the next decade. Beyond just a paid leave policy comes other forms of support that are also sorely lacking: only 30% of new moms can work from home (pre-COVID) and only 22% have flexible schedules. Moms in creative roles have it harder: 48% of them had their requests for flexible schedules denied.
What responsibility does ad land have to support working parents with meaningful support, even when the law says they don’t have to?
A Responsibility to their Business
Smaller shops are often outside the parental leave conversation bubble, claiming they simply can’t afford to provide what bigger agencies funded by holding companies can. But lots of parents fall off the employment wagon once kids enter the picture (and by the way, over 2 million U.S. women have left their jobs during COVID largely due to childcare challenges). If the bottom line is the argument, rather than asking how much a paid parental leave policy might cost, agencies may want to ask this: How much does it cost to find, hire and train replacements for parents that leave?
“Agencies like to keep people in roles where they add value, but going on maternity leave forces them to find a replacement for you and then find a new account for you to work on when you return. This means you can demonstrate versatility.”
A Responsibility to the Industry
Agency tenure is already not very long. When eight in ten moms and two in three dads consider leaving the industry altogether, we’re talking a giant loss of advertising’s greatest resource. 2020 may have set ad spending back a bit, but a rebound is expected in 2021. With many parents abandoning the industry, where will the qualified talent come from to meet all of that demand? Not to mention the growing demand for quality creative work—the kind that requires diverse, inclusive work cultures. Where will your agency find the people to fill new roles, and how will you compete with other agencies to hire them?
“For years, I assumed that once I became a mom, I’d never get a promotion again. It took seeing women around me who are mothers continuing to crush it in their careers to realize that wasn’t true.”
A Responsibility to Society
As capitalism demands, today’s children become tomorrow’s workforce. Beyond the early support parents should have to care for a newborn, they need enduring flexibility that allows them to rise to the challenges of a task that just doesn’t always fit within the confines of a nine-to-five job. Working parents provide an essential service to society: shaping and molding the minds that will one day fill essential working roles.
A Responsibility to People
If it was only about providing what’s required by law, we wouldn’t be here. Providing paid time off for parents is the right thing to do. Working parents can continue to do their jobs, and they do them really well with the right support. I heard plenty of personal stories from moms and dads about amazing supervisors who supported them in their role as working parents and to whom they say they owe their careers. I also heard how big an internal shift parenthood is, and how big an impact it has when you do show back up to work. And if these words aren’t the way most agencies would like employees to describe their relationship with their work, then I don’t know what is:
“I was naturally more empathetic, more thoughtful, better with time management and more focused.”
“It focuses us, builds new muscles, and creates an entirely deeper set of empathy.”
“I started taking bigger risks and putting myself out there more confidently.”
Whenever my turn to embark on motherhood comes, I’ll no doubt have the same anxieties I heard about from countless other women in the advertising industry: whether I should’ve waited until I’m further along in my career; whether I have the right support at work to navigate a new normal. Speaking of the “new normal” — after almost a year of COVID-19 and a vaccine on the horizon, we’re all thinking about how we can show up in 2021 more thoughtful, creative and successful. What better time to review your agency’s approach to supporting working parents?