Lean In Meets What to Expect: An Interview with Allyson Downey

Our founder, Susan LaMotte, recently interviewed Allyson Downey, founder of weeSpring and author of Here's the Plan. Here's the Plan offers an inspiring roadmap for working mothers steering their careers through the parenting years. Ironically, Susan and Allyson have much in common—both are entrepreneurs, MBAs, writers and mothers. In this honest interview, Allyson shares with Susan why having a plan is important for women to thrive in the workplace. This may just be the motivation new mothers need to keep shaking up—and changing—the world!

Susan: Why do women need a plan?

Allyson: When I was pregnant with my first child, I was totally sidelined by my manager and my colleagues. It came as a total shock to me: I was excelling at my job, and I'd been lauded by my boss as a top performer.  I was not the type of person who would be slowed down professionally by pregnancy—and yet I found my unceremoniously off-ramped; no one in my office would return my phone calls.  My plan, up until that point, had been to just keep doing what I was doing: working hard and delivering results.  

That's not always enough, and it wasn't enough for me. So I went out and interviewed 75 successful women (and surveyed thousands more) about how they kept their careers on track while having families. How and when did they tell their colleagues? Who was their advocate within their company, when they were out of the office? How did they communicate what they wanted, whether a flexible work schedule or more responsibility? What did they do to ensure their partner at home was truly an equal partner?  

There's no one right answer to any of those questions, but my book is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure compilation of their stories, advice, and experiences.  

Susan: What’s the biggest thing women miss when considering how having a baby will impact their career?

Allyson: I think women are mostly clueless about benevolent discrimination, which is what happens when someone sets out to do you a favor (like spare you the business trip to a conference when you have a new baby at home, or help you ease up your workload by not assigning you to a demanding client) but winds up harming your career.  That business trip might have been an opportunity to increase your profile within your company, and working for that demanding client might have set you up for a promotion.  Put simply, everyone—even the most feminist and egalitarian people—makes assumptions about what it means to be a working mother, and those assumptions only occasionally line up with reality.  The only way to mitigate benevolent discrimination is to be deliberate and proactive about speaking up for what you want.  Err on the side of over-communicating.

Susan: How are partners and spouses part of this plan?

Allyson: We're in a brave new world of co-parenting, wherein dads—especially millennial dads—are eager to be hands-on with their children and equal partners at home.  Wanting partnership and achieving it are still a world apart though, and I attribute a great deal of that to the habits and patterns that emerge right after a baby is born... when dads are often already back at work, due to a lack of paid paternity leave.

Women become the de facto CEO of their households, becoming experts in everything from the language of baby cries to how to find childcare, simply because they're physically there to learn those things.  It winds up taking tremendous effort and commitment from both parents to avoid slipping into "primary" and "secondary" roles as caregivers.  The challenge for women is in ensuring you aren't just delegating tasks to your partner, but sharing in responsibility.

Susan: What role do companies play? What role should they play and how can they help?

Allyson: In my opinion, the biggest thing companies can do is to afford equal paid leave to all parents, to send the signal that caring for a baby isn't woman's work.  In the system we have today, women in their 20's and 30's are essentially walking around wearing a fluorescent sticker that reads "MAY BE OUT OF OFFICE FOR THREE MONTHS IN THE NEAR FUTURE." Equal parental leave would eliminate that disparity, squashing unconscious bias with the potential to make the "mommy track" and the "motherhood penalty" extinct.

Susan: Can we address the honest truth that many women, when they have that first (or second or third) child, want their careers to be less stressful and thus, look for and take positions with less responsibility or never go back to work full-time?

Allyson: When I was on maternity leave after my first child was born, I knew pretty clearly that I didn't want to go back to the Wall Street firm that had so egregiously discriminated against me when I was pregnant.  I met with a headhunter, and when I called him weeks later to tell him about a job I was accepting, he said, "That's not the right job for you.  You're going to be miserable."  His reasoning: it wouldn't be challenging enough for me.  I reminded him that I had a brand new baby at home, that I'd just had an awful experience in a professional culture that was pitted against women, and that I needed to have a 9 to 5 job that would allow me to support my family (my husband was in business school) without burning myself out.

It took less than six months for me to figure out that he was 100% right. I was, in fact, miserable. It turns out that when you are a new mother, having a demanding job is not the worst thing in the world.  Worse, at least for me, is having a job that leaves you feeling unfulfilled.  If you feel, at the end of your "short" six or eight hour day, that you've wasted the time you spent away from your baby, not accomplishing anything meaningful, it's pretty soul-crushing.

Now, I'm not issuing a general prescription to lean in.  In hindsight, would I have still taken that job? Without a doubt. I needed stability, and I needed some time to build up my confidence after it had been obliterated by my Wall Street experience.  But not long after I launched a start-up and had a stretch in which I worked regularly worked 12 hour days, but despite it being 50% more work than I'd been doing, it felt like half the burden.  

All of that is to say: slow down when you need to.  But think (and talk!) in short-term increments.

Kathleen O'Brien (@kathleen_eliz) is a Lead Consultant & Project Manager for exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps organizations build their cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about our employer brand innovation, workforce research, and recruiting strategy offerings.

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