How Change.org is shifting the status quo for parental leave
Written by Paula Peters, Chief Global Officer at Change.org
“It will set a bad example”. That’s the reason given to a friend of mine who was recently denied even minor flexibility in working after returning from her parental leave. I thought that many employers had moved on from this mindset – she has a leadership role at a big, German media company. But also, perhaps more so, because it contrasts with the position I find myself in, at 38 weeks pregnant, expecting our second child any minute now. Oh, and I should mention that all my friend’s managers are men and that in the past years, I have heard stories similar to this one again and again and again.
We should consider, for a few moments, what thinking might have caused my friend’s managers to articulate this sentence. What the meaning of this “bad example” might be. Because, if we agree that it’s not right for new parents to be denied flexible working after a child is born or adopted, then the next question is this: what should be done about it?
One interpretation could be that other employees learn of this arrangement and surmise that family is the most important thing, that it is more important than your work, especially during the early stages of a baby’s life or during a new adoption? But who would argue with this? What could be more important than caring for your young child?
Perhaps her managers saw flexible working for a new mum as the start of something that could lead to men, as well as women, requesting this arrangement. This is no less troubling.
Any explanation I can think of leads me to one of two conclusions.
First, for so many people, the world of work continues to punish new parents – and especially women. Which is ironic because having a child is, for most people, one of the most important times in our lives. What sort of message does it send about an employer if, at the most important time for a family, flexible working is denied?
Second, and I see this every day in the work I do, old power structures – doing things the way they always have been done – are instinctively easier to maintain than change itself. While that might seem a hard truth, try convincing close to 300 million Change.org users, people winning campaigns on a daily basis, that existing power structures cannot be trumped by the hope of change.
I feel so privileged to be approaching my maternity leave in the knowledge that, like all parents (no matter the gender) at Change.org, I will have the financial security of 18 weeks full pay. But, equally, in the knowledge of my professional security, and that I am supported by my organisation, my team and my manager to help me and my family at this special time. And I know, as I return to work after my leave, that I will be supported to find the balance between work and taking care of my expanded family.
But I also feel angry that my friend’s treatment contrasts so starkly with mine. It should not be so. Those words – “it will set a bad example” – I will frame on the wall in my team’s office in Berlin, as a reminder – not that they need it, of why Change.org exists. To “set a bad example” so that people like my friend can come together, for hope to trump old power.