Julie* was an accountant at a hedge fund for nearly seven years. She was a well-respected, successful team player, valued for her significant contributions to her firm.
Until she had a baby.
That is, until she had twin girls, one of whom was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect. At which point, due to her employer’s inflexible policies, she lost her job. And the American workforce lost another talented female worker who was forced to choose between motherhood and her career.
If you don’t know this shocking fact already, the United States is one of just four countries in the world with no federally mandated paid maternity leave. The only federal support for new parents is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows both men and women (provided they are working for employers with at least 50 employees) to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave before or after their baby’s birth. But really, how many people can afford to take 3 months off with no pay, just at the moment their family is expanding?
Julie’s firm went a good step beyond FMLA, and gave Julie 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. [Side note: the firm could afford it; annual salaries for their top players in the front-office (not Julie) are in the millions.] If her pregnancy had been smooth, Julie would have worked until her due date and returned to work after her 12 weeks of leave were up—likely frustrated not to have had more time with her newborns, but counting herself “lucky” within the national landscape.
But Julie’s pregnancy was not smooth. She was put on bed-rest at 26 weeks, and hospitalized at various points after that for complications. Her twins Mary and Kathleen were born at 34 weeks, Mary at 4.5 pounds, and Kathleen at just 2.5 pounds. Thankfully Mary gained weight quickly and is a happy and healthy four-month old today. But Kathleen remains in the NICU, having already had two open heart surgeries, with, all going well, at least two more to come. Under the circumstances, 12 weeks of leave—paid or not—were simply not enough.
Julie’s baby girls are now her priority. But she’s been a career-woman, and breadwinner, all her life. She knows that at some point in the near future, she’ll be ready to return to work, and she’ll be able to be a mom and an accountant at the same time. She just needs to focus exclusively on her little ones for a little while longer, and she knows she’ll then need a part-time schedule to help see Kathleen through what’s to come.
In between hospital visits, shortly after Kathleen’s second surgery, Julie scheduled a meeting with her boss and asked for additional time off, unpaid. And she asked for the flexibility to be allowed to return to work on a part-time basis once Kathleen gets home from the NICU.
Both requests were quickly dismissed, and denied.
There’s no question Julie was an asset to her firm. She had been promoted up the ranks to controller, one step below the CFO. And in fact, when the CFO left the firm a year ago, Julie managed to streamline her work so effectively that she was able to do her own job and take on CFO responsibilities as well while the firm sought his replacement. But when she asked for the room to juggle her time for her own needs, her request fell on deaf ears.
Instead, she was snubbed with an offer to take more time off (unpaid), but only if she then returned in an entry-level position, on an entry-level salary. Her seven years of service at the firm, and her 15 years of experience in her field, would count for nothing.
As a result, she handed in her notice. But effectively, she was fired.
And we wonder why women don’t hold more senior-level positions in the workplace.
Not being a parent myself, I've long been making the point that work flexibility is not just for parents. But it’s hard not to be moved to action by Julie’s story.
That said, Julie’s boss wasn't moved. Her boss’s take on the matter was essentially, “Hard luck. But business is business.”
He was unwilling to consider alternative ways for keeping Julie in her position (where she had excelled) because he couldn't see beyond the conventional workplace norm he was used to.
But “business is business” is not the mantra of a leader, and not the slogan of an innovative workplace.
Julie’s firm was not only heartless, but also short-sighted, because while Julie’s story is especially heart wrenching, there are countless reasons someone might need flexibility in their job. Sometimes, like for Julie, that might mean time off unpaid or a transition to a part-time schedule. Sometimes, it might mean a job-share, or alternative scheduling (for example, four 10-hour days a week). Sometimes, it might mean working from home, occasionally or all the time. Sometimes, it might just mean working from 7am to 3pm every other Tuesday. Whatever the specifics, employers can’t just turn a blind eye every time a bright, committed, and talented employee is faced with complications outside of the workplace—because eventually they’ll be left with no one on staff.
Fortunately, more and more companies are realizing that if they don’t bend in the face of the realities of modern life, they will break. But too many organizations still follow outdated, inflexible models like Julie’s. And unless we actively speak out for widespread change, little girls like Kathleen—who’s already tough as nails at just a few months old—will grow up to find that no matter how strong they might be, workplaces are neither designed for, nor interested in, their success.
Join me, along with parents, men, women, millennials, retirees, workers with disabilities, military spouses, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders across the country who are speaking out to say that workplaces like Julie’s are broken. Join 1 Million for Work Flexibility to help create a collective force for change.
*names have been changed