Lengthening Paid Maternity Leave: Is it Enough to Propel Women to the C-Suite & Beyond?

Center for Values-Driven Leadership Care for people, Leadership

According to Women in the Workplace, a study conducted by McKinsey & Company in conjunction with Lean In, women represent 20% of the executives in the c-suite.  According to Women in the Boardroom, a study conducted by Deloitte, women hold 12.2% of corporate board seats in the United States. At the rate women are progressing, Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, believes it would take more than a century to achieve gender parity in the c-suite.

Maternity Leave | Equity

Women in the Workplace Study, Lean In and McKinsey & Company 2016

What actions can leaders of corporations take to propel women into the executive ranks?  Exelon, the leading diversified energy company which provides reliable, clean, affordable and innovative energy products, took a bold step.  In 2017 Exelon boosted the maternity leave policy to 16 weeks of paid time off after the birth of a child.  This was a huge step for the company.  It puts Exelon ahead of all other utilities and on par with many Fortune 100 companies.  The reaction to the policy change has been terrific, as evidenced by improved ratings on Glassdoor .

Six months ago, as an employee of Exelon, I was in a meeting with mostly finance professionals.  One of the women in the room was obviously pregnant and I had worked with her on several different projects.  I shared with her the announcement that was about to be made regarding the extended paid maternity leave policy.  She jumped up (not bad for a woman five months pregnant!), hugged me, and said, “this was the best Christmas gift ever.”  With one policy change we made life easier for at least one highly regarded team member.  I am guessing she will feel more loyal to Exelon when she returns to work.

Another colleague of mine, Kristina, who is due in June with her second child and just happens to be one of the smartest women I know, said, “this is the most proud I have felt to tell people I work for Exelon.”

In these two cases, we have retained and engaged top talent for a nominal cost.  Both women will return to work, will have more than 20 years ahead of them to contribute meaningfully, and will remain in the pipeline headed for the c-suite.

Benefits play a major factor in determining Fortune’s Best Workplaces for Women to Work list and Working Mother Magazine Best Companies list and for retaining top talent. However, was improving the paid leave policy enough to solve the bigger issue of gender equality in the c-suite and boardroom? What can the leadership of a company do over the life-cycle of a high-potential woman’s career to retain and develop her beyond just counting on the inherent drive and potential of the individual?  And, without the woman giving up on the idea of having children, having a spouse stay home with the kids, or reaching burnout before a woman reaches her potential?

A Call for Adaptive Leadership

To face this challenge of propelling more women into the c-suite, we need adaptive leaders to be at the helm of Fortune 100 companies. Adaptive leaders generate organizational change in the midst of significant market and socio-political volatility. They are able to take on the gradual but meaningful process of adaptation.  To begin, “Real leaders ask hard questions and knock people out of their comfort zones.  Then they manage the resulting distress.”  (Heifetz & Laurie ).  Women need champions who follow the six adaptive leadership principles:

  1. “Get on the balcony” and look at the problem from a big picture perspective.  All the research identified within this article provides the background needed to identify the issue.  Our corporate leaders are only one internet search away from understanding the dilemma.
  2. Identify the adaptive challenge as a gap between what we believe and how we behave. The Lean In/McKinsey & Company research Women in the Workplace says, “Companies are struggling to put their commitment to gender diversity into practice—and many employees do not view it as a personal priority.”  It is time for action, as outlined in the next 4 steps.
  3. Regulate distress by supporting organizations focused on women in the workplace, such as:
  •  Women Employed: expanding educational and employment opportunities
  •  Apres Group:  helping women transitioning back into the workforce
  •  Catalyst:  providing mentoring and sponsorship

Also, there will be stress in the organization which can be addressed by sponsoring employee resource groups within corporations to provide a safe and supportive environment to identify and resolve emerging issues.

  1. Maintain disciplined attention by confronting the tough issues.  Although many companies have adopted flex-work, part-time, and leave of absence programs, many women hesitate to take advantage for fear of derailing their careers.  Leaders need to bring these issues out into the open and address the underlying root cause, according to Zoe Williams, editor of The Guardian .
  2. Give the work back to the people and let the women of the organization solve for the issues.
    At Exelon, they have an employee resource group called Network of Exelon Women.  Recently, an off-shoot of this organization was formed called MomEd.  This grassroots organization was created to foster a family-friendly work environment in which working mothers are able to thrive.  In one month they have made more progress on addressing working mothers’ needs than I have seen in five years by sharing information on back-up day care, reintroducing bring your child to work day, and conducting a survey to determine the needs of working mothers.  What is the saying? If you need something done, give it to a busy person.
  3. Protect voices of leadership from below including the women who fought for 16 weeks paid leave and my colleague Kristina, mentioned above, who launched another grassroots organization called “Mothers Room Revolution” to fight for better facilities for nursing mothers.

If we had more leaders like the character Kevin Kostner played in Hidden Figures , more women like Katherine Johnson would be heard.  This movie needs to be a prerequisite for being leader.

Women are making progress into the c-suite – slowly.  In order to light a fire, we need adaptive leaders to pick up the torch and fan the flame.  Increasing the length of paid maternity leave may be a flicker of hope, but what we need are fireworks.


Angela Karesh is a Principal Management Development Specialist at ComEd, the electrical utility provider for northern Illinois, which is owned by Exelon Corporation. She is also a doctoral candidate with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University.

For more on women in leadership, see our recommended book list.

Need more resources on policy and laws related to maternity leave?

Small businesses considering their maternity leave policies may benefit from exploring this guide from FitSmallBusiness.com.

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