Category Archives: Working Parents

Lean In, Recline – next we’ll be encouraged to levitate

“We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers.” – Sheryl Sandberg

“Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.” – Rosa Brooks

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published well over a year ago – and yet, there are still conversations reverberating around cyberspace among both rabid fans and angry detractors. I jumped in the fray myself when I shared a Washington Post article on Facebook called “Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg)”. I was particularly struck by this article because it was written by Rosa Brooks, the former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and who also served as a State Department senior adviser. This is a woman whose workplace pressures dramatically exceed my own and it was, frankly, such a relief to read Brooks’ exhortations to “fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”

In the nonprofit sector, there is a tired old axiom that we are in this only for the greater good, that our passions are enough to fuel our work, that the rewards for driving positive change are all we need.

Not true.

Yes, many of us feel inspired by our work, and passionate about our causes. But the fuel we need is the stuff that goes in our gas tank that gets us from home to work every day, and the rewards we need are the kind that put food on the table and diapers on the toddler. And though we are willing to do this work for paychecks much smaller than our corporate counterparts, it feels wholly unfair to expect and ask us to take on more, build our networks further, and be even more productive as we struggle to simply get through the day. It reminds me of what my mother always said when I was an impatient child, begging for more, more, more: “I’m dancing as fast as I can.”

However, Sandberg, in Lean In, has two important points that resonate with me: first, she asks women to not disqualify ourselves for leadership positions because we aren’t sure we can do them, or because we believe our experience might be perceived as inadequate. Second, she asks us not to refuse leadership positions because we want a family.

I have a dirty little secret: before I accepted my current job, I asked the recruiting consultant to find out if maternity coverage was included in the health care package. I wasn’t sure if this was an appropriate question, but I wasn’t afraid to ask it. My then-job did not cover maternity, and it was truly a deal-breaker. I wasn’t about to have yet another barrier in my way to starting a family.

But many women likely do not feel they can ask questions like that, because they are frightened of scaring off possible employers, and exposing themselves to scrutiny about their priorities. But shouldn’t this kind of information be readily available, without the question even being asked?

On a separate note, what do we do about that fact that so many women, according to Sandberg, undervalue themselves and question their abilities? Certainly many women I know feel like the only way to prove their worth is to work themselves to utter exhaustion. I remember that one of the only days I ever knocked off early at my former job was when I managed to raise $50K in an hour during a lunchtime presentation. That was big potatoes for me at that time, and I allowed myself to leave at 3 PM to celebrate. I’m embarrassed to say that I prided myself on the ridiculous hours I worked, typed away at to-do lists when on phone calls, and went back to work after dinner far more often than I really needed to.

Brooks, in her Washington Post article, has answers for both the undervaluing, and the family issues. She says that we need to “fight the culture of workplace ubiquity” – i.e. the expectation that we are at our computers 24/7 and working all hours of the day and night – and to work on the gender imbalance that still dominates the home life, in that women still do the disproportionate share of housework and parenting.

Good suggestions, certainly. But there is also a great deal of snark and hateful language in Brooks’ article, and Sandberg seems a convenient punching bag for the frustrations of the pressures put on all of us. Why does even this conversation have to be so combative?

Sandberg wants us women to step into more leadership positions, to stop undervaluing ourselves, and to embrace the fact that we can have a family and a meaningful career. She’s also a gagillionaire whose perspective can be a little hard to swallow. Brooks wants us to fight for gender equality, and to make time and space in our lives to allow for more breathing, resting, and reclining.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, well, yes. To all of this. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.

It’s the how. And the how rests with those of us who are in a position to actually do something about this. I have some positional power where I can create an environment that supports leadership, families, and self-care. And I can advocate that others in my field do the same.

Our workload isn’t going to go away. The number of people who need our services in the nonprofit sector is not likely to shrink dramatically anytime soon. And our paychecks are not going to double, either. So what can we do, to ease the burden, to relieve some pressure, and to invite staff members – particularly women – to achieve these ideals?

I have some ideas, many of which I’ve written about before: flexible hours, the expressing of gratitude, rewarding great work (with cash, not just words, if you can!), investing in the personal and professional growth of staff members, encouraging (and insisting, if need be) staff members to take paid days off if they’ve been at full burn.

But I think it’s also important to be honest and vulnerable about our own struggles. I suppose that’s why, even with the snark, I appreciated Brooks’ article. Even though she is certainly a woman of much greater means and responsibility than me, she still seems grounded in the same challenges I face every day. And to have someone like her cry “UNCLE!” and say she can’t take it any more makes me feel relieved about hollering about it, too.

I’m bleeding money every month to cover the cost of daycare for two small children. I’ll miss seeing my family this holiday season because we cannot begin to afford the trip to New York. My three-month emergency savings that I built up as a single person has all but evaporated since my second child came along. I feel intense pressure around money on top of feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to truly show up for my work and my family.

Comparatively, I’m incredibly fortunate. I make a decent salary, I’ve got a very flexible and supportive workplace, I’ve got a truly wonderful and brilliant husband, and I love my job and my colleagues. And yet, sometimes I feel I’ll collapse under the weight of the pressure not only to do more, but to also do better.

I have to wonder where this pressure comes from – this sick feeling that I’m always falling short. Do men experience this? Do dads spend many hours a day feeling torn in half between work and kids? Do they constantly battle feelings of inadequacy? Maybe, but in my experience, not nearly as much as women do.

I cannot begin to imagine what these work and family pressures must feel like for people in more difficult circumstances – whose salaries are terribly low, who are single parenting, who hate their jobs, who aren’t supported in their workplaces. I think it’s all well and good to invite each other to recline OR lean in but the invitation isn’t enough. Those of us with the capacity to create change in our organizations need to build in systems and cultures that allow people to work the way they want and need to while still ensuring productivity and encouraging passion. And we need to figure out why it’s so difficult for many women to enjoy an ongoing feeling of accomplishment and peace. As a very smart friend said to me recently, “Nobody needs to hold us back or do violence to us if we’ve internalized it.”

I’m on a path to try to figure this out, and to do something about it. If you have any brilliant ideas, I’m listening.

 

 

 

 

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Accommodations

“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” – George Bernard Shaw

Two Fridays ago, I spent the morning with prison inmates, and the afternoon at a community celebration for breastfeeding.

One of the things I love about my job is that every day is different. There’s never a day when I’m working on the same thing for hours on end, and never a week that looks anything like the weeks preceding it. But that Friday was particularly charged, and frankly, challenging, as I spent the morning reeling with awe and gratitude, and the afternoon feeling both honored and frustrated.

My day began at the Rountree Medium Facility Jail in Watsonville. I was there because the Arts Council gave a grant to the incredible William James Association. The Association, through their Prison Arts Project, hired artist Arturo Thomae to work with the inmates to create a beautiful mural in the jail’s cafeteria. Ten of the inmates who worked on the mural spoke about the experience, and to a man, each expressed immense gratitude. “It took going to jail for me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time,” one of them told me. “It’s not going to be the last.” Another spoke about what it meant to have the opportunity to be transported, at least figuratively, from the jail, during the hours he got to paint. “It’s the only time I’ve not had to look at these four walls, and gotten to think about something other than what it’s like to be here.”

I admit that I went to this event with some apprehension, about what it would like to be there, and what it might be like to talk to incarcerated men. And I left humbled and floored and utterly grateful for the life I have – one of such privilege, which largely protected me from forces that could have landed me or my loved ones in a similar situation. These men may have done things that led to their incarceration. But they also chose to participate in a project to create beauty that they hope will last for decades. And they also – like everyone – need a creative outlet, maybe even one to inspire them toward building a different kind of life.

After leaving the jail, I rushed to pick up my boys and drove them to downtown Watsonville where the local chapter of Women, Infants & Children and many other partner organizations had organized the annual Breastfeeding Awareness March & Celebration. I was there to accept an award that is near and dear to my heart: the Family Friendly Workplace Award, with Breastfeeding Emphasis.

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This award, spearheaded by United Way Santa Cruz County, recognizes businesses that support their employees in their roles as parents. Sally Green, the Arts Council’s Development & Communications Director, and mother of one-year-old Sadie, nominated us.


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I’m thrilled we received this recognition, not because what we are doing is extraordinary, but because I hope the very existence of this award helps to move the needle to encourage workplaces to take better care of their employees.

I’ve heard so many horror stories – and been in the thick of them myself – about how workplaces seem to have been intentionally set up for people to fail, and I promise you that there are fewer people more vulnerable than new parents. I don’t think what we do at the Arts Council is revolutionary. At least, it shouldn’t be. But we do everything in our power to set everyone (parents, grandparents, younger employees, more seasoned staffers) up to be as successful as possible.

This is what Sally wrote in her nomination:

“Arts Council Santa Cruz County is a family friendly/family supportive workplace in so many ways – from flexible schedules, Family Leave and accommodation for breastfeeding/pumping to a spirit of welcome for children at events for both staff and the community. Executive Director Michelle Williams worked with the board to create a Family Leave policy that supports mothers and fathers, whether birth or adoptive parents. Staff with grandchildren is also afforded the flexibility to spend time with them to support their children, extending the family friendly and supportive atmosphere to the community. We are invited to bring our selves fully to our work, including our roles as parents and grandparents. “

I’m so delighted that Sally feels so supported. But I am deeply frustrated that what we do is not the norm.

If you are in a position of leadership at your organization, and you think that you could improve conditions for parents, grandparents, and caregivers, but for any reason you are hesitant to do so, I invite you to get in touch with me. If you fear that schedule flexibility will create laziness or a lack of engagement, I’ll quickly dispel that myth. If you think you can’t afford a leave policy, I’ll work with you to figure it out, and show you how employee retention is a LOT less expensive than recruitment. Are you an employee and want to create a campaign for a more family-friendly workplace? I’m your gal. I’ll help you all I can.

Think about this: what’s the quickest way to get a stranger to warm up to you? Ask them about their kids or their grandkids. What’s the quickest way to alienate a stranger (or even an old friend)? Insult their kids or grandkids. It’s the same deal in a workplace. The fastest way to make an employee feel welcomed or valued is to show them that you welcome and value their whole person – including the munchkins they may have at home.

I’m here at the Arts Council for the long haul. Why? Because I love my job, I admire and adore my colleagues, I have a super smart and engaged board of directors – but mostly, more than anything – they all let me be a mom.

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What can you do to make your workplace one that, even more, values the whole person? Join us in this movement. Let me know how I can help.

 

 

 

Involve Me and I Learn

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I’m told that babies and young children often have major developmental leaps after traveling. There is something about being in a new environment that inspires the brain to do something differently, or that triggers a new understanding. My three-year-old Andrew took his first two steps in the airport on Kauai, at the tail end of a two-week vacation in Hawaii. My one-year-old first figured out that softly cooing “mama, mama, mama” (as opposed to just nondescript moaning) was a very effective way of getting my attention in the middle of the night when we were staying in a hotel in Tahoe. These may have been coincidences. But I know that the only way I can inspire change in my tired, comparatively old brain is by getting out of Dodge and going somewhere that is completely “other”, and taking real time to think differently.

Day 3 of Spitfire was the perfect cap to this experience. Andy Goodman came back and showed us that if we could change the story, we could change the world. Meaning, if we can effectively communicate the problems we are tackling and the solutions our organizations provide, we can build the resources we need to better our communities. And in the afternoon, Lizz Winstead (co-creator of the Daily Show, comedian, and activist) talked to us about how humor is a fantastic tool for activism. She’s hilarious, and, more important, she’s fearless. And thoughtful.  And that is a powerful combination.

I learned a lot over these three days. I had a bunch of “aha” moments, and many more moments of great satisfaction as common sense, best practices, and my own passion for my work at the Arts Council all came together to illuminate great possibilities for my organization. And I realize that if we don’t integrate some of this learning, we’ll – in some ways – just spin our wheels and never fully realize the Arts Council’s full potential, and fall short of the additional tremendous impact we could have in this community.

But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have known what we were missing. It’s true that integrating what I learned into the Council’s work will take time and energy. But what would be worse: business as usual, or a little more work on our plates that will inspire the next era of Arts Council awesomeness?

The point is this: we all need opportunities to think differently. We all – as individuals and organizations – need great trainings, taught by wildly skilled instructors and attended by passionate, smart executors, so we can learn to, say, move in a different way (like a toddler’s first steps) or communicate in a different way (like a baby figuring out a deeply instinctive motivator for his mama).

In the nonprofit sector, when money gets tight, we generally cite “marketing” as the first thing to get slashed from a budget, and we bemoan the loss. I’m willing to bet, however, that professional development gets cut long before marketing.

My advice: DON’T DO IT. Don’t cut it. Fund it. Over-fund it. Got a professional development budget? Double it. Talk about it at every staff meeting. Champion it to your board. If you are a funder, be very, very smart like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation (oh, and wait, also like Arts Council Santa Cruz County) and invest in it for your grantees. If you are a staff member, and you find a training opportunity, and your organization can afford it, and the people who are running it look smart and savvy? Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time. (Don’t even let your sweet little new baby hold you back from going – trust me on this, you’ll love the sleep.) Just do it.

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Some of the faces, and smiles, of folks working to better themselves so they can better the world

We’re all too busy, we’re all overcommitted, and I’m realizing that even as I tell that story about my own work life, I also find my “busyness” really boring. Enough already. Let’s all make a commitment to expand our minds, our social networks, our skills, and our lives by investing in the professional development of ourselves and our colleagues.

Balancing Act

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” – Alain de Botton

“Having children is like having a bowling alley in your brain.” – Martin Mull

“I’d love to come to your conference. I’m a nursing mom. Do you have a place I can pump?” – me

As a kid, I used to count the days until summer vacation. Now, at the beginning of each fiscal year, I count the days until I get to start planning my conference schedule.  I love looking at the year ahead to see what’s being offered, where it’s happening, and who is going to be there that I can’t miss. I get almost as excited for conferences as I do for vacations, as these experiences feed both my passion and my soul. I find I learn best when I’m taken out of my comfortable environment and placed in a new space with strangers and friends I don’t usually get to see. These experiences are invaluable for my work, and my spirit.

But my attitude toward these opportunities has changed in the last few years. Now I weigh the benefits of the conference against the time spent away from my little boys and husband, and the scales are pretty weighted toward my family. Working a full-time job and being the parent of very young children is the greatest challenge of my life. And, sadly, our society is not set up to help us parents balance these great responsibilities.

There are many obstacles that working parents have to overcome, every day. We struggle to feel successful at anything, because there never seems to be enough hours in the day to truly serve our work and our children. One of a dozen issues I face every day is how, when, and where to pump. I’m a nursing mom, and though some folks still feel squeamish about hearing anything tied to that particular anatomical part, pumping is a constant reality and necessity for working mothers committed to being the primary source of nutrition for their babies.

To be clear, I hate pumping. I hate it. When Alex is a year old and I don’t have to pump anymore, I will gleefully set my pump on fire and send it flying off the tallest building I can find. But until then, it’s the machine that helps me take care of my baby, and where I go, it will too.

But I can’t let pumping – or parenting – completely derail my professional life. So it’s time to get back in the conference saddle. I’ve missed too many in the past few years. To that end, I’ve been exploring my options and I’m delighted about what’s coming up. Next month, for the first time, I’ll be attending the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford. I haven’t been at the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference in two years, so I’m excited to be attending this October. Other excellent opportunities are lined up for the winter and spring. These events are critical to my success at the Arts Council, as they connect me to great thinking in the field, fuel my passion, and deepen my ability to serve the arts both locally and nationally.

As I contemplate these opportunities, however, I have to consider how I can manage my commitments. And so every time an intriguing event comes my way, I pick up the phone, call the event organizer, and tell them that I’d very much like to participate, but is there a place I can pump?

To a person, I’ve been the first one to ask them this question, which I find both surprising and sad. What have other nursing moms done? Have they just not participated? Or have they pumped in a bathroom stall? Or in their car in a parking lot? Or have they been too shy to ask the question? There’s one conference that I’m not attending due to schedule conflicts, but I was particularly distressed that they didn’t have a ready answer for me, since the conference was all about empowering women in the workplace. We cannot empower women, or parents of either gender, in the workplace if we aren’t anticipating their basic needs. True, not every woman with a baby is pumping, but it’s my guess that thousands of women currently working in Santa Cruz are pumping, and maybe even pumping as I write this. While pumping.

The good news is, all of the conference organizers I’ve talked with eventually said “yes”, that they could accommodate my needs (which are pretty simple: privacy, a table, and outlet.) Indeed, the Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford, which is the venue for the Nonprofit Management Instituted, has a room reserved for nursing mothers. But why isn’t this the norm?

I travel a fair amount for my work, and engage with cultural leaders and institutions across the country. And I hear time and time again about how these institutions want to attract young, energetic, dynamic leadership. When I was in my early 30’s, I heard a great deal about the looming “leadership gap”, where major institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors were terrified that their CEOs were going to retire and there wasn’t enough talent to fill their shoes. (All of the young leaders I was connected with at the time thought this was hogwash, because we were all ready and able to jump in, but that’s another story.)

But here’s the thing: if you want young leadership, you have to be prepared for the priorities of the young, and that often means starting families. I’m not ashamed to admit that before taking my current job, I asked a very pointed question: does the insurance policy cover maternity benefits? I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I could do it and be a successful ED – but only if I wasn’t terrified about having to pay out-of-pocket for my health care needs.

But insurance is only the beginning. There are many things to consider around parenting issues if your organization wants to attract and keep young talent:

–          Does your organization have maternity and paternity policies that go beyond the (pathetic) federal requirements?

–          Are you willing to let parents (or anyone, for that matter) work flexible schedules?

–          Are you willing to create personnel policies that help young parents fulfill their parenting responsibilities? (A place for pumping is just one example.)

When organizing events or conferences, there is also much to consider. What about proactively making the conference appealing and accessible to young parents? There are many ways to do this, but here are two:

  1. On the conference registration, the form always asks if the registrant has special needs, such as wheelchair accessibility, hearing aids, even vegetarian meals. How about asking if the registrant will need a space to pump or nurse (if the parent is bringing the baby)?
  2. When providing event information for multi-day conferences, how about including child care referrals for qualified nannies willing to come watch children in the hotel room at night, so the attendees can attend the evening events?

Does this seem over the top? I don’t think so. These are small suggestions that in my mind need to seed a revolution on how parenting is prioritized in our corporate (and sometimes our nonprofit) culture. We do a terrible job of taking care of parents in this country. We value being overworked and overtired. We create job structures that reward time spent at desks rather than accomplishments in our communities. And we rarely celebrate the millions of people who manage to juggle kids and work and do their absolute best to be of service to both.

When you’ve got a little one at home and a big job at work, you feel as though you never have enough time for both. So the least we as nonprofit leaders can do is smooth the way, be thoughtful about how we structure our organizations and events, and work to make parents of young children feel a little more welcome.

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back in the saddle

Four months is both a flash in time and an eternity, it turns out. I’m just back from my maternity leave and reeling from the abrupt transition from full-time mom of a wiggling little fleshbot to full-time executive director of an organization on fire. And not a fire that needs to be put out, but one that I am very excited to feed and fan.

I did hire a brilliant interim executive director (the wonderful Nancy Ragey) to shepherd the organization along in my absence, but it turns out, the good folks of CCSCC didn’t have time to contribute to my blog, as they were up to their eyeballs in some pretty cool work. But I’m back, and ready to jump in.

Before I fully dig in to all of the crazy wonderful stuff headed our way – the roll out of our new brand identity and new name, the celebrations we’ll have about our new location on the Tannery Arts Center campus, the rework of several of our core programs – I have to figure out how to be both a high-functioning mom AND a high-functioning executive director. Or, at least, I have to pay attention to the conflict these two all-consuming jobs create and consider what I can do every day to feel successful at both. It’s only my fourth day back, and it seems the universe is thinking about these things, too, as my email inbox featured a very timely post from Thomas Cott. His “You’ve Cott Mail” this morning is all about “the impact of parenthood on those working in the arts“.

His post focuses on artists, rather than arts administrators, but I do consider my work to be my art. I spend more time with my colleagues than I do with my husband or children, so this had better be my art form. And the articles 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 collides headfirst with the biological clock” but identifies the more personal side of these challenges as the real conflict. Ellen McSweeney, in her New Music Box blog, says “At first glance, you might think that the field of contemporary classical music doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the high-powered corporate tech world. And you might also think that, in the arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. [But] leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles.”

These imbalances often exist not just because glass ceilings are still firmly in place, but also because, according to research, we women worry a lot more than men about whether or not we can have careers and children. And with that worry comes other nasty emotions. Cott references Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.’s blog: “Guilt comes with the territory, it seems to me. And even when you try to make everyone happy you fail.”

This last statement is more of a greater truth, but it hits home all the more when you are a working parent. I spend almost every minute of every day in service to my kids or my job, and the prospect of failure (as my warped brain defines it) hovers around me, constant as a shadow. I found the work/kids/marriage/life balance very challenging after my first child was born, just over two years ago, and now that I have a second little boy, it’s all the more intense.

Parenting, if you choose it to be, is one of the strongest forms of activism. You can choose to help create a better world through raising children who believe in respect, kindness, courage, love, and service to those around them. So as much as I am consumed with love for my boys, I also believe that if I do my job right, they will have at least the opportunity to do great things on scales small and large.

And yet, I feel I have something to offer the world beyond two healthy, happy little boys. I believe that my community is worth my blood, sweat, tears, and time. And I believe that the arts can transform lives, and that the arts are the vehicle through which I want to make a difference. And so I’m here, in this office, rather than home with my boys. Because I want to do both: be a great parent, and a great executive director. I want my boys to feel secure and loved and capable of whatever they want to do, and I also want this community to thrive with endless opportunities of engagement, expression, and inspiration. And, obviously, these two wants are deeply intertwined.

So I choose to do both. The challenge for me, every day, is how to do both well. I don’t have clear answers, and I think “success” will look a little different, every day. At the moment, all I can do is dig in, and get started.035

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?