The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How can women respond to gender stereotyping at work?” is written by Teresa Briggs, vice chair and West region managing partner at Deloitte.
Nearly 20 years ago, I took 16 weeks off as an audit partner at Deloitte for my son’s birth. I wish I could say I felt at ease with the idea of being on extended leave, but I didn’t. At the time, I felt concerned for my career trajectory and wondered if my absence would affect my colleagues’ and leaders’ view of my work ethic and commitment.
Thankfully, I chose to follow my mentor’s advice, which ended up being an incredibly valuable life lesson: There are times in your career when you give and times when you take.
More recently, when my father was diagnosed with a fatal disease, I had to split my time between being a mom to my high school son, a daughter, and a caregiver, managing my father’s financial affairs while maintaining my professional life. Although I wasn’t on leave, I was emotionally distracted with far more personal responsibilities than normal. My company provided full support to my family needs, yet I still felt some of the same concerns as I did when I was on maternity leave years before.
Fortunately, dynamics are changing. Today, many employers are aligning policies with well-being and ensuring family-related leave is more flexible. However, a majority of employees still have concerns. Deloitte’s Parental Leave Survey of 1,000 U.S. workers revealed that more than half of men and women (54%) felt that parental leave would be perceived as a lack of job commitment.
This feeds into the stigma that remains around parental leave. Women, specifically, still face potential bias (often unconscious bias), and worry if their time off could adversely affect their career trajectory. Even if you haven’t planned for maternity leave or increasing family responsibilities, organizations still may view promoting women in their twenties and thirties as a hindrance to workforce stability.
Here’s how women can combat this:
Set clear priorities and expectations
In order to manage your leave and set proper expectations, communicate with your managers and HR on timing. If possible, create a transition plan that defines your areas of responsibility one month before leave, including the status of your projects, and work with your managers on identifying colleagues who can cover for your absence. Devise a plan for your return, too. Having a “transition-back” plan provides a structure to your return, such as whether you’ll start back as part time or full time, and what working-from-home opportunities exist.
Focus on your well-being
I’ve realized from my three-decades-long career that my personal and professional needs change over time—having gone through maternity leave, raising my son, and taking care of my aging parents. It can be difficult, and at times, you may not want to disclose your personal needs due to perceived judgement about your work ethic. However, concealing your needs can be detrimental to your well-being, and your focus may actually decline. Bringing your authentic self to work is important, and communicating your needs is essential to creating as much flexibility around how, where, and when your work gets done.
If unclear of your options, ask your employer about programs that allow you to take ownership of your life and career. Formalized policies and a workplace culture that grants flexibility helps you become a better employee and feel supported by your employer.
Whether planned or unforeseen, family events can affect us at every life stage. They certainly did for me, and will likely continue to do so. You may have occasions when you need extra time to care for your kids, spouse, domestic partners, siblings, or parents. You should be able to do that without worrying about hindering your career goals. Most importantly, don’t bypass taking care of yourself. That way, you can become the best version of yourself to your organization, career, and loved ones.