I work at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where it’s our mission to provide an exceptional learning environment to students. We prepare them to be responsible global citizens with meaningful personal and professional lives. When I had my first child in 2014, I wanted to go back to work AND I didn’t want to worry about finances. I also wanted as much time with my new baby as possible. My company’s maternity leave policy offered 10 weeks paid leave with the option to take two weeks unpaid under FMLA. Having 12 weeks would’ve been nice, but I chose to return after 10 weeks so I didn’t have to worry about money. After the birth of my second child in 2018, once again I returned to work after just 10 weeks. This time, I was flung into our busiest time of year, and I wasn’t ready. Two days later, my cousin took his life. Every time I went home, I sobbed mourning the loss of my cousin. Every time I pumped at work, I cried wanting to be home with my child. I wish so much that I had those two more weeks at home.
In 2017, I attended the Women’s March in Des Moines, Iowa. Afterward, I was so inspired that I made a list of things that I wanted to do to change things around me. The maternity leave policy at my workplace was one of them. In talking with my coworkers, I learned that academia is a notoriously difficult place for women who parent and are on the tenure track. Professors with tenure-track jobs have six years to amass a publication and teaching record that will bring them tenure. If they don’t get tenure, they lose their job. The stakes are high. And I heard many other stories of inequity where fellow colleagues were told, “Just come back two weeks early because then you can teach a class and I don’t have to find a replacement.” Whenever I interview people for jobs at Drake University, I always say, “You matter here.” I wanted to prove that. We’re trying to attract talent at Drake yet we’re competing with other employers that offer four months’ paid leave to both the father and the mother.
I worked with three colleagues on campus that represented each type of employee here, which is faculty and staff exempt and nonexempt (which means you’re hourly paid or salary paid). Each category has a completely different way of using the leave policy and therefore, a completely different set of complications. During those meetings, I learned that some faculty members are afraid of having a child because it hurts their chance of tenure. Hourly employees were worried if they couldn’t have a child within a certain timeframe or couldn’t afford to take the time off, they weren’t going to have a child at all. Women were making reproductive decisions based off of their employer, and I didn’t feel that was right. I wanted to do something.
After meeting with those women, we worked on a proposal for almost a year before bringing it to the university benefits committee. After they read it, they had us come speak at a meeting. The selling point I kept pushing was that we promoted diversity and inclusion among our students—we needed to demonstrate that with our employees too. We’re sending our students off to land jobs where they’d receive four months paid leave, yet their faculty doesn’t even get 12 weeks? After speaking before the benefits committee, one member replied to me, “I don’t have children, but I imagine that it’s a stressful process, and you’re stressing me out just by telling me how complicated this process is. Let’s do right by you guys.” I was pregnant at that time with my second child and hoped maybe the new policy would go through in time for my maternity leave. I missed it by six months, but, in July 2018, the committee approved adding two weeks paid leave to the existing policy.
I write accomplishments in my journal and use it to come up with the next thing I want to tackle. Now I’m trying to implement a one-day bereavement policy at Drake that you can use for anybody on earth—right now it only covers certain closely blood-related family members. I didn’t get to use bereavement time for my cousin when I came back from my second maternity leave because he didn’t fall on the list. Instead, I worked with my manager to take time off for the funeral. I’m on a special interest committee and my argument is leaving time off up to a manager’s discretion isn’t good enough—it creates inequities. For example, one person’s manager might let you bring your child to work, whereas another one might ask for an obituary to prove the death of a blood relative.
I really value that no matter who you are, you can stand up and have a voice. After every meeting about the maternity leave policy, I left thinking, What’s going to happen now? It wasn’t until the announcement in our internal newsletter it felt real. The turning point, however, was when my colleagues started getting pregnant, like our Director of Annual Giving, Becca Widmer. She welcomed her second child in November 2018 and used those guaranteed 12 weeks as time to heal and bond with her baby without worry.
“Drake University offering this paid leave lifted some of that anxiety. It makes me feel that the employer that I invest so much of my energy and passion in every day is willing to invest in me and my family as well,” Becca says. “I hope more workplaces will follow in its example.”
I didn’t even get to use the benefit I worked to implement, but I love watching it impact mothers after me. I am not a human resources professional, I’m not an executive, but I stood up and changed things at my employer. Stand up and speak up. Even if you don’t get the result you want, who knows what you could inspire?
Nicole is associate director of communications and marketing at Drake University. She lives in Johnston, Iowa, with her husband of seven years and two children Riley, 5, and Merritt, 1.