This VP is revolutionizing maternity leave in the office

Three years ago, Allison Ward, then an account director at public-relations firm Walker Sands, was pregnant and looking into her company’s maternity leave policy, which was in dire need of improvement.

“We hadn’t really had anyone go out on maternity and successfully return to work at Walker Sands up until that point,” she said. At the time, the company was young, and “we just didn’t have many working parents within the company at the time,” she said.

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Unchartered territory

“When I started at Walker Sands in 2013, we had about 35 people, and there was a woman then who went out on leave, but she didn’t return. So, I knew that was going to be challenging for me.” Ward felt there would be hesitation on management’s part to change the policy because of that incident of a woman going out on leave and not returning. She also knew that there weren’t any processes or procedures to help a mother transition back to work, since no one had done it before.

Although changing the company’s maternity leave program wasn’t within the scope of her official responsibility, “it was kind of a mantle I took on,” Ward said. (Ward is now Vice President and partner at Walker Sands).

After studying the policy, she started doing research, reading stacks of books. Ward also talked to maternity leave expert Lauren Smith Brody and began internal conversations with people on her leadership team about the policy.

Through her efforts working together with leadership and HR, they were able to increase the maternity leave policy from four weeks paid and eight weeks unpaid to – before Ward went out on leave to have her daughter – “six weeks paid, six weeks unpaid, which I was able to take advantage of.”

A second revamp, all-inclusive

When Ward returned to work, she knew she wasn’t finished overhauling the maternity leave. “I almost immediately started working on revamping the policy again,” she says, “because in those conversations, one of the things I was told is, “It’s not necessarily in the budget for us to do it now, but let’s keep talking about this and see if we can revamp it again in the future.”

So she kept talking about a second overhaul. “I reignited that conversation early last year and, by the middle of the year had approved a new 12-week fully paid policy. And one thing that I’m particularly proud of is that it’s not necessarily particular to men or women, or primary caregiver versus secondary caregiver, which I know is something a lot of companies do. It’s just a blanket family leave policy. It was very important to me that it was LGBTQ friendly, so it was adoptive parent-friendly. And it didn’t necessarily just favor birth mothers.

During the second overhaul, Ward also put together a working group of parents and non-parents from different levels and disciplines across the agency to figure out what types of resources were needed for manages, the person taking leave, and their team.

“The bigger piece is making sure our employees are supported throughout the planning process, leave, and transition back to work,” she said.

Not just an office mom

Ward felt the difference in going from an employee to a working mom – and she worked to make sure she was taken just as seriously after she had her daughter as before.

“It’s very hard to find your voice in the office and make sure that you’re taken seriously as an employee once you become a parent,” she says. “One of the things that I am constantly telling people is that, in my own opinion, working has made me a better mom because I’m more patient. I appreciate the time I spend with my daughter. When I’m not with her, she’s in school, she’s learning, and she’s growing and spending time with other kids her age.”

Working parents, she said, sometimes vilified as distracted and prone to needing time off, are actually excellent hires.

“Personally, I think that you can not make a better hire than a working mom,” Ward says. “That person is going to show up. They’re going to show up ready to work and they’re going to be one of your most productive members of your staff. I really hope that the conversation shifts to that because I think that that’s really the case that I’ve seen with myself and with a lot of my network.”

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