being the change

“Don’t agonize – organize.” – Christine Pelosi, quoting her mother Nancy

I turned 40 years old this past June. My life has changed dramatically over the past four years – I now have a brilliant husband, a wonderful son, another son on the way, a job I adore, and a home in one of the most magnificent places in the world to work and raise a family. Though I’m basically always exhausted, due to the motherhood + full-time work equation, I still am keenly aware that my life is amazing. But sometimes I wonder about my personal impact on the planet. Am I making the kind of difference I believe I was born to make? When I leave the planet, will I have left it different and better? I know that just being a great mom can change the world, and if I can do that, terrific – but I also wonder about my personal and professional impact and who I want to be beyond the circle of my little family.

Well, last week I got a pretty big kick in the rear. I attended the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Leadership Forum, aptly entitled “Making SHIFT Happen”. I was a little wary of cheesy empowerment stories and bad music (and yes, I heard Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” a few too many times) but overall, it was incredible. It began with an interactive lecture by Melanie Stern, who took all 200 of us through the “True Colors” personality profile to determine our dominant personality type. Having been through Meyers-Briggs and a half a dozen other kinds of platforms of this ilk, my result was not surprising (I’m a blue, it turns out, and an ENFP, thank you very much), but what did surprise me is where my colors are “dim” – i.e., orange. Orange is the color of big risk-takers and extroverts and energy and living life to the fullest. I think this color has dimmed for me since becoming a parent, but I do hope to “brighten” that color a bit in my professional life. And according to Melanie, such things are possible!

But the real juice for me was in the keynote speech by Christine Pelosi. Certainly, this is a woman who was born into a situation that was primed to cultivate greatness, but even with this background, what she’s been able to achieve in her 40+ years is humbling and inspiring. She’s only a few years older than me, and yet her national accomplishments and critically important posts are too long to list here. Even more than that – she’s just a regular ‘ol awesome human being. She met her husband only a few years ago, had her now three-year-old daughter shortly afterward, and hasn’t skipped a beat in her professional life even through those big transitions. I wonder if I could say the same. I wish I could take her out for coffee, just to find out how she balances it all, with a perspective more in line with mine than, say, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s.

Christine spoke without notes for over an hour. Obviously she’d given this speech before but it was punctuated with comments highly relevant to the theme of our gathering. She took the time to tell us that she was a huge San Francisco Giants fan and welcomed updates to the game currently being played throughout her speech. She was unapologetic about her accomplishments, and those of her family, while still being so human and accessible. And she implored – nay, commanded us – to take action of our own.

She talked about being “change agents”, though she never used that phrase. She said that we can’t always wait until we are elected, or until those who are elected are sympathetic to our cause, or until there is already a movement afoot, or even until there is a critical mass willing to tackle a problem before we take action. She said that sometimes we just need to get everything rolling ourselves and be the catalyst to make all of the above happen. And she talked a lot about the empowerment of women.

There are still far more men than women in power, across political and professional spheres. There is still not equal pay for equal work. There are still men taking credit for ideas generated by women. And there are still men and women – everywhere – who sit back and allow this to happen. One of her analogies was that of a staircase: in many situations, where men have one flight of stairs to climb, women will have two, and lesbians or transgender people might have four, five, or six flights to climb for the same job. She asked, “Have you ever been in a meeting where ‘Jane’ proposes an idea, and then five minutes later, ‘Jim’ proposes the same idea, and then everyone in the meeting erupts about what a fantastic idea it is?” This sounds so 1950’s, but it happens all the time. Christine said that this is when we MUST speak up, and say, “Jim, that is a great idea, and Jane, thank you for bringing it up!” We must all be change agents for equality, and that means, probably more than anything, that if we as women find ourselves in positions of power we must do our part to give credit where credit is due, publicly and privately. And TAKE credit, when it is due to us, whether it is men or women who try to steal it. And we must continually find ways to reach down the ladder to make sure that the climb up is equally easy or arduous for everyone.

Although there are spheres where inequality bares its fangs more frequently than others, this is still a huge problem. And there are painfully obvious examples of this. If men were the ones who had to give birth, do you think there would be any question or controversy about insurance companies covering the cost of birth control? If men were the ones who needed to breastfeed and who were typically the primary caregivers during the first few months of life, do you think America would still trail all other developed nations in federal maternity leave policies?

I know I’m treading into dicey territory here, but I bring this up to demonstrate how we can all be change agents. As a new mom, and a mom-to-be again, the maternity policy issue is one that has me enraged. The US federal maternity policy states, in a nutshell, that you can’t legally be fired from your job as long as you return within four month after giving birth. Period. No maternity or paternity paid leave, no caregiver assistance – you are “allowed” to take off work, but beyond that, you are on your own to pay and care for a wailing blob of life that will suck you and your bank account dry. (It’s worth it, but still.) And the rules are different for companies with fewer than 50 employees – which is a heck of a lot of companies, by the way. Compare us to countries around the world and it is just embarrassing. Heck, *Slovakia* pays 70% salary to new mothers for THREE YEARS! Zimbabwe, and many other African nations, pays their mothers 100% of their salaries for three months. Guess who else funds three months of fully-paid maternity leave? Afghanistan.

The United States? Zip. Zero. Now – a few states – California included – have created leave policies that partially fund salaries, with a cap. Here, we get 12 weeks of “disability” payments at roughly 55% of salary. Which is a great help. But most companies – and almost all smaller companies – have no supplemental assistance and follow the federal guidelines.

When I got pregnant, I looked at the Cultural Council’s personnel handbook, and the state and federal policies, and realized that I would not be able to afford to take more than a few weeks off to be with my new baby. This was unacceptable to me, both for personal reasons, and for the kind of organization I want to run. I worked with my then-board president, the executive committee, and a human resources consultant to see what would be possible. In the end, they were fantastic and supportive and we created a new maternity/paternity policy that provides one week of full pay and an additional four weeks of pay at 45%, to make up the difference of the disability payments – AND allowed that the employee would continue to be on the insurance plan for up to four months.

Hey, it’s not Afghanistan, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. And now, when similar organizations are thinking of reworking their own policies, and they call me to find out what we offer, I promote the Cultural Council as a model and an advocate for supporting employees as they enter into the wildest transition of their lives. And this doesn’t just help the employees: it helps the organization by creating an environment where people feel supported and cared for – which is critical for employee happiness and retention.

Christine’s speech reminded me that in this one area, I’ve been a change agent. And she’s inspired (nay, commanded) me to find other areas where I can and will make a difference. Sometimes I think that attacking the federal maternity/paternity policies might be the next big thing in my life – when my kids are older and it’s time for me to bring on fresh, new talent to lead the Cultural Council. That day is far off, but it’s good to be thinking about what I can do then – and what I can do tomorrow.

So, I ask (command?) you: What do you think needs to be fixed, in your organization, globally, or somewhere in between? And what are you going to do about it?

2 thoughts on “being the change

  1. […] in Cott’s post ring true for me, loud and clear. One references the imbalances I’ve already discussed on this blog: “lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that […]

  2. […] in Cott’s post ring true for me, loud and clear. One references the imbalances I’ve already discussed on this blog: “lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that […]

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