Vodafone, a London-based multinational telecommunications company, announced this week that they will be providing a minimum of 16 weeks maternity leave followed by six months of a 30-hour-per-week workload, all paid at 100 percent, and enforced in every country where Vodafone has employees. Yes even in America, the land that I love, which happens to rank twentiethout of the 21 high-income countries in terms of length of protected maternity leave, and is the only country on that list not to require that any of that leave be paid. So yeah, the Vodafone news is a big deal here on U.S. soil.
But here’s what I can’t get over: None of the rhetoric surrounding this bold move seems to be about “women’s issues” or “equality in the workplace” or the myriad other catch phrases that we hear in conversations about America’s disproportionately poor accommodations for working women in the child-bearing season of their lives. The conversation has been squarely focused on Vodafone’s bottom line, and I’m honestly ecstatic about that.
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of maternity leave and workplace accommodations for new mothers in America, and not a drop of it has been spilled by me. Not just because I’m no expert on the topic, but also because I’ve always felt that the conversation was more complicated than an outraged cry for better treatment. I’ve always felt a bit of tension between believing myself to be an indispensable asset to my employer, yet wanting the freedom to dispense of myself, so to speak, for a year-ish at a time while I establish my family.
Here’s the deal: I’m good at my job. My career started in the advertising department of a local daily newspaper, jumped to a Fortune 500 company, then to a small-ish start-up company that was working towards a hopeful IPO. I’m not going to shy away from saying this next part—because when you’re paid well to be good at something and deliver a result, you should damn well be good at it and deliver the result—I have always been good at my job. I have been occasionally under-qualified, have fumbled a few tasks in the name of the learning curve, and certainly stressed out an awful lot, but I have always taken pride in being good at what I do for a living.
It has always been important to me to bring value to my employer, and I believe that I have done that. I would hope that I bring enough value that my presence would be acutely missed if I were absent. Maybe it’s a bit prideful, but I’d want them to really miss me, to really feel it, if I left. After all, what would it say about my contribution if I could take six or 12 months off, return for a year or so, and then maybe take another extended leave, all while expecting the larger team not to miss a beat? While I could selfishly understand why working moms would want maternity leave policies that allowed for such flexibility, I struggle to understand how employers could be expected to offer them.
I’m sure there are actually some great answers to that predicament. I mean, ask any Swedish woman, I guess. My own experience, for the record, includes stepping out of the workforce entirely for two years following the birth of my first child, because I just couldn’t stomach the idea of balancing my demanding job with the much more adorable demands of a new baby. We added a second baby to our family via adoption during my stint at home, and I felt ready to return to work when our youngest was about six months old. I had informed my boss I wouldn't be returning after 12 weeks, so my prior job was not waiting for me but had been promptly re-filled.
Back to the drawing board I went. The job search on which I found myself, as a tired but restless mom of two small children, was a totally different animal than any job search I had experienced in the past. My priorities were different (less travel, even if it meant less money), but my purpose was distilled to its purest form. I had been a stay-at-home mom for two years and I knew from comparative firsthand experience how working outside the home fueled me, how it allowed me to use the full range of my strengths, and how in doing so I was truly the best version of myself. Maybe I couldn’t devote quite as much time or as much idle thinking toward work as I once did, but I knew that I could still bring an awful lot of value, and I was eager to do that.
The search was slow and seemingly fruitless. The prospects that promised to offer a reasonable work-life balance barely paid enough to cover the cost of childcare for my two kids. The prospects that would pay me what I was accustomed to making would mean long hours and extensive travel, hardly allowing me to be a mom at all. The debate over America’s culture for working moms was suddenly very, very personal.
So this is why I love Vodafone’s new policy: It’s about talent. Chuck Pol, president of Vodafone Americas explained that the new policy "gives us an advantage when we're working with female employees, not only in our business today but as we recruit people." He really doesn’t say anything that is overtly sympathetic to the plight of the working mom, or that touches on any perceived brokenness of the current system. Vodafone literally recruited an accounting firm to analyze their financial losses due to women leaving their jobs after having children versus the expense of offering an expanded maternity leave policy, and found that it was better for their bottom line to do the latter. They estimate that the new policy would save global businesses $19 billion annually, in fact. Yes, billion.
The moral of this story, and the reason I love it so much, is that we working moms are indeed bringing value. Vodafone's accounting firm just illustrated that. It allows the whole conversation to transcend the bickering about legislation for a moment and shine a light on what I’ve known in my heart all along: We are good at what we do, we are assets, and you should want us on your team. Not simply because we bring diversity or because you’d be a jerk if you didn’t agree, but because we will help your business succeed if you can keep us around for the long haul.
Hats off to you, Vodafone, for paying attention, doing your homework, and having the guts to make bold moves that don’t cater to the immediate gratification of saving a buck. I hope that you are indeed pioneers, and that your success paves a way for other businesses to follow in your footsteps.
This article was edited on March 12 at 4:20 p.m.