We’ve heard this story time and time again—Many moms worry that they won’t get ahead (and therefore stay ahead) in the workplace unless they cut their maternity leave short. It’s an unfortunate conundrum that so many working moms go through and you’d think as we approach 2020 that we’d be in a society accepting of women working AND taking time to spend with their growing families.
Katrina Lake, founder and CEO of Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service, is paving the way so maternity leave is embraced rather than scoffed at. Katrina, despite the overwhelming demands of her job, took two 16-week maternity leaves after the arrival of each of her sons and makes no apologies for it. She doesn’t want any woman to feel that maternity leave is a career setback. In an article for CNN and a corresponding LinkedIn post, Katrina wrote about what she learned by taking two leaves, and the universal parental leave policy she’s setting so that everyone in her company is extended the same right.
While Katrina was out of office, she received praise for setting a strong example for other young female CEOs (she’s 36, per her Wikipedia), after the birth of her first baby in 2016, and second in the fall of 2018. “While I was proud that Stitch Fix was leading the way, it also led me to question our leave policy and think more critically about gender equality roles within the household and the perceptions, expectations and values we pass on to our children,” Katrina said for CNN.
But she knew more changes had to be made to equalize the professional field for all working parents. “Many parental leave policies today are structured around a primary/secondary caregiver model,” she said. “This construct reinforces traditional gender roles in which women are typically prescribed the job of primary caregiver, shouldering the greatest burden of childcare, while the secondary caregiver, traditionally a man, spends more time working.”
Katrina noted that while the traditional model used to make sense, when single-income families were more prevalent, it doesn’t fit with today’s more progressive climate—and the financial benefits of dual incomes are often vital. More than 60% of households have two working parents, she cited.
And, Katrina said, while the primary and secondary caregiver model may have been well-intentioned, it can come with significant setbacks—for both parents. In a straight couple, the mother is typically seen as the primary caregiver. When she takes maternity leave, she’s the one with the potential of facing instability at work, as mentioned above. Some moms aren’t given any paid leave, making it impossible, or at least impractical, to take more than a week off to be with a new baby. The challenges don’t stop when the mom returns to work. “By delegating parenting as one person’s ‘primary’ responsibility, it can be harder for that person to travel or to network during evenings or weekends,” Katrina said. “Women stay home caring for the child, while ‘secondary’ caregivers have time to commit to advancing in the workplace.”
The primary/secondary caregiver concept, and maternity leave, instead of universal parental leave, often excludes gay couples. When a gay couple has a child together, who is given leave? Who is considered the primary or secondary caregiver in a situation where, regardless of gender, each parent should be pulling their weight in regards to raising a child? “It’s time for workplace policies to reflect the family structures and values of the future — giving equal benefits to primary and secondary parents, and all genders, regardless of how the child enters the family,” Katrina said.
She hopes the universal leave policy at Stitch Fix will “enable her employees to thrive” and influence other companies. “In my view, universal leave is one of the best ways that we can positively impact the trajectory of gender equality,” Katrina said. “By setting the stage for equal roles in early parenting and raising the next generation’s children in households where parents assume more equal roles, we are setting important norms for our children and instilling values they will take into creating their future. I would urge other companies to implement universal leave. It’s how we’ll empower and support future generations.”