How I Negotiated for 4 Months Paid Maternity Leave

When I found out I was pregnant in the spring 2011, one of the first things I did was investigate my maternity leave benefits. I pulled up my employee handbook on my computer and scrolled to the parental leave section.

I was appalled by what I saw: I was entitled to 2 weeks of 100% paid leave. (The US, which requires 0 weeks of paid parental leave, has the absolute worst maternity leave of any developed country in the world.)

That’s two weeks to recover from childbirth. Two weeks to bond with my new baby. Two weeks to master breastfeeding, pumping, and bottle feeding. Two weeks to get into some kind of sleep schedule that left me with enough brainpower to function at work.

Determined to fight for more leave, I got to work right away. In the end, I negotiated for 16 weeks of leave, 8 of it paid at 100% of my salary, an additional 5 weeks paid at $500/week through short-term disability insurance, and used 2 weeks of vacation and 1 week of unpaid leave.

Here’s how I did it.

Step 1: Explore Your Options

Unfortunately, most women in the US have to cobble together whatever leave they can in order to spend more than a couple of weeks with their newborn babies. The first step is to look into any kind of leave you think you could pile up -- vacation, disability insurance, sick days, holidays, floating days, you name it.

Read your employee handbook. Write down any questions you have for HR. Spend some time googling the different kinds of leave women have put together for their maternity leave. Not everything may be explicitly outlined in your employee handbook, especially if you work for a small company; short-term disability insurance wasn’t mentioned as part of parental leave in my employee handbook. I brought it up with my HR person and, together, we called the insurance company to figure out my options. It turned out I was eligible for short-term disability.

Mom with Daughters
Mom with Daughters

Step 2: Do Your Research

I worked for an international organization with offices in countries around the world. I researched government-mandated leave in those countries and made a chart outlining the amount of leave to which women working in our other offices were entitled vs. the amount of leave I would get under the current US policy. I laid out the reasons the US maternity leave policy should be improved, including that it didn’t align with the organization’s progressive values.

In your case, you might instead do a competitive analysis of sorts of similar companies in your field.  This article is a good place to start your research. Do whatever you think will make the most compelling case to management at your organization.

Step 3: Put Your Ear to the Ground

See what information about maternity leave you can gather around the office. Talk to colleagues who have recently taken maternity leave. Ask them how much they took and whether they have any tips for navigating the system or getting more leave. I was the first person to take maternity leave at my office, so I made my own path, which had its advantages and disadvantages. I know moms-to-be who have gotten great tips from colleagues about how to approach the leave conversation.

If you have a good relationship with your supervisor, start a conversation with him or her and see if you can get a sense of how flexible the policy is. Your supervisor understands how valuable you are to the company and might end up being your biggest advocate.

Step 4: Craft Your Proposal

Once you’ve done your research and talked to colleagues, figure out what you want to ask for. I recommend keeping any kind of formal proposal to 1-2 pages and including charts and/or graphs and bullet points to make it easy to read. Summarize your research (including competitive analysis), state what you want, and make a case for why it will be good for the company -- and for you -- to get more leave. Make sure you keep the focus on how it will benefit the company; instead of saying, “My family can’t make it 3 months without my salary” (even if it’s true), say something like, “Company values family and hard work. When I return after 4 months of paid leave, I will be energized and ready to jump back in, which will be good for me and for Company.”

Be sure to include information about the preparation you will do before your leave starts -- cross-training a colleague or temp, outlining processes for your work, etc.

Step 5: Negotiate

Women often shy away from negotiating, which can contribute to their getting paid less -- and getting fewer benefits -- than their male counterparts (women in the US earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn). According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic, men are four times more likely than women to enter salary negotiations and 20% of women say they will never negotiate -- even when it’s appropriate and expected.

Benefits and salaries are almost always negotiable. When you ask for more, the worst thing that can happen is that your employer will say no. It’s worth the risk. It might make you uncomfortable and it might feel unnatural. That’s okay; it will be worth it. A simple negotiation around parental leave can mean you get to spend one or two more precious months with your new baby. Prepare for your negotiation by reading this advice for women from master negotiator Margaret A. Neale and by practicing with a friend or spouse. Don’t be embarrassed or intimidated. Negotiation is part of all work environments and the payoff can be huge.

Step 6: Be the Change

Even if you don’t get everything you’re hoping for during your maternity leave negotiation, remember you are still making an impact. Every woman (and man) who asks for -- or demands -- better parental leave is one more reminder to management that family leave is essential. The message to companies is clear: If they want to keep good employees, they’re going to have to start improving their parental leave policy. When you talk start a conversation about maternity leave, you force your company to confront reality and consider positive change.

Good luck!

How have other moms and dads negotiated for parental leave? Share your experience in the comments below.

Photo credit: donnieray