Advancing Your Career Through Parenthood

Allyson Downey, co-founder of—an online crowd-sourcing platform to see what your friends think about the baby products they’ve used—shares her advice for advancing your career while raising children, what to look out for if you think you’re experiencing pregnancy discrimination, and how everyone can help change work culture to be more accommodating to parents.


Allyson Downey experienced pregnancy discrimination at work and thought it was an anomaly. In doing research for her book, Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenting, in which she lays the foundation to help you thrive in your career while raising children, Downey found that nearly one-third of women experienced some form of pregnancy discrimination.

What are the most important things you want new mothers to take away from Here’s the Plan?

I think the two biggest ones are speaking up for yourself and really building a professional support network, making as many connections as you can from the earliest point in your career. That is the safety network that is going to be there for you if you do run into problems like I ran into, but it’s also going to be there to help elevate your career if you don’t get into problems, so its really a win-win. You can do that by helping other people and, as cheesy and corny as it sounds, putting good energy into the world by doing things for people without them asking—thinking about who you know who could help someone else in making those connections. If you’re the person facilitating those connections, it’s going to help all of your relationships.

A lot of women who are planning on having kids don’t realize just how far ahead they should be thinking in terms of saving. Can you give a quick overview of what should be planned?

The really great thing is New York is facing paid parental leave for the next few years, so that’s a game changer for women working in New York. The important thing to remember is that it caps out at a certain percentage of your salary or a certain amount, so you are not going to get 100 percent of your salary, and you still need to save and make accommodations for maternity leave.

Disability policies are something that you should always enroll in—short-term disability—if you are thinking about having kids. Sometimes paid maternity leave is covered out of your disability policy, and if it’s optional from your employer, you absolutely want to opt into that.

Starting to save money for it now is not a bad idea as crazy as it sounds. A woman I used to work with told me she was able to fund half of her maternity leave by selling Apple stock that she bought in her early 20s. Not that everyone’s job gives them the ability to save that much, or that they have the confidence to be investing in the stock market like that, but think about your rainy day funds. If you are thinking about having a child, it is going to rain sooner than later.

You talk a lot about pregnancy discrimination in Here’s the Plan. What are your tips for women who feel they’ve been discriminated?

The first thing is to start keeping track of what is bothering you. It doesn’t have to be what one attorney described to me as a paranoia diary. It can even highlight the things that you’re doing well. Just start to keep notes somewhere that you can access easily and that you can access if you’re no longer in your job—a document that keeps track of the days in which you received praise, the days you noticed you had less responsibility, any strange comments people are making to you. Don’t go too crazy with it because it can turn into a paranoia diary, and that’s not going to be good for your state of mind and for doing your job effectively. But having that documentation is so valuable.

Six months after I left [my job] and had all of these issues, I realized that what had happened to me was in fact pregnancy discrimination because they tried to get me to sign this really onerous non-disclosure agreement. The NDA was the clear sign because my other colleagues who had left the firm hadn’t gotten an NDA or anything like the one they had sent me. It cemented for me that they knew that something had gone wrong with the way I was treated. Whether it was intentional and mindful or not, I had not been treated fairly. Because I had kept really careful notes of all of the times I reached out to my office and didn’t get a call back and all of the emails I had sent and didn’t get a response—I had them all saved on my personal email, I CC’d myself—I had a timeline, which is one of those things that your lawyer eventually will tell you is most important. 

Discrimination arises from assumptions that people make about you because they think, she’s not going to want to go to that conference because she’s got a baby at home or she wouldn’t want to work on that particular client account because its going to mean a lot of late nights or even she’s not going to come back to the office because two other women who worked for me didn’t come back to the office, so I need to start preparing and giving her work to other people.

Speak up about what you want without saying it in the construct of I think you’re treating me differently—even something as subtle as saying I want to make sure you know that I am eager to take on as much responsibility as I had before I left on my maternity leave or I want you to know that even though I have a new baby at home, I’m willing to travel. If you voice what you want and you still feel like you’re being treated differently, that’s when you should have a more direct conversation with your HR department and your supervisor. 

I would advise that before having a conversation like that, have a consultation with a lawyer, not because you are going to pursue litigation but because there are so many things that are going to be considered different on a state-to-state basis—what’s permissible and what’s not and what constitutes a legal case and what doesn’t. In a lot of instances, when you initiate a conversation in which you say the words pregnancy discrimination, the legal department is going to be brought in, and a lot of times people are going to try and get you to sign something that is not in your best interest. Before you talk to anyone, before you sign anything, you want to talk to a legal professional.

But most cases don’t make it to a lawyer. Most cases either fizzle out because a woman is able to resolve it or somewhat resolve it on her own. That was another thing I thought was surprising, in a powerful way, in the conversations I had with employment lawyers: You can get around this without having to escalate to an accusation of pregnancy discrimination.

After experiencing pregnancy discrimination, were there any signs, in hindsight, that might have clued you in to how you would be treated once pregnant?

It should have been more of a red flag to me that there were very few women working in my department. I just chalked that up to Wall Street in general—I knew that it was a male-dominated culture. I came from politics where even if the staffers may be more female they elected officials who are ultimately the boss and are predominantly male. I didn’t see it as something to worry about I saw it as an exciting challenge. 

Kirsten Gillibrand [U.S. Senator for New York] has this line that she uses often about one of the best things about being a woman is that everyone underestimates you until it’s too late. They don’t see a need to be as defensive with you, they think you’re not going to be able to win, they have all of these expectations that you’re not going to be up to their level. When people underestimate, you its really easy to outshine those underestimations.

There really were only three other women in my role in NYC out of 75 or 80 people. I should have seen that if really only three women are doing this job that people are telling me is so family-friendly, there had to be something going on under the surface, that even if there wasn’t explicit discrimination, it was much harder to succeed as a woman. Aside from that, there was nothing that I really could have done differently. I was good at my job. If you lead with that, you just assume that everything else is going to be okay, but in this case it just wasn’t.

How can new mothers get ahead of and limit to judgment from coworkers for having a more flexible schedule?

Every woman I talked to that was constrained by child care hours felt spectacular guilt every time she walked out of the office. Those women don’t want to talk about it because why would you want to bring up something that’s making you feel terrible? And the colleagues who are watching you walk out the door don’t want to bring it up because they don’t want to begrudge a mother’s time with her children. What no one is acknowledging is it’s making everyone unhappy. 

As hard and uncomfortable it can be, clearly tell your colleagues: I have to leave every day at 5pm for child care pickup. I hate walking out of here while all of you are still working. I am going to do everything I can to cram as much work into the 8 hours I am here, so you may see me decline meetings that aren’t absolutely critical for me to attend. State whatever accommodations you reasonably can make to ensure that you are able to stay on equal footing with your colleagues.

Why did you decide to hire a full-time nanny rather than a child care center?

For [me and my husband] it was really about flexibility and convenience. We both worked long hours. I anticipated when I went back to work after my son was born that I would again be in a job that had pretty inflexible work hours. I did wind up being able to take a job that was, for the most part, 9-5, but even in NYC with a 9-5 job you have to allow yourself an hour to get to and from your office because of crazy city commutes and needing to give yourself a little bit of handoff time. A lot of the day cares were really strict about the drop off and pickup times—some of them would start to charge a dollar a minute if you were late.

We also didn’t want to have to commute to day care with a child. I didn’t want to get on a subway with a baby in the morning and then drop off my baby at a day care facility and then go onward. The real thing for us was that day care was not that much of a cost saving over a full-time nanny. For the incremental difference in cost, like when you take into account needing extra babysitting around the day care hours, our ability to have someone take care of our child in our home, deal with things like grocery shopping for us, all of these other small things that we didn’t have time to do during the day, it was really worth it for us [to hire a nanny].

I know that not every family has that luxury, but a lot of families are starting to do nanny shares, and I talked to the head of Breedlove—now called HomePay, which is owned by—a payroll service for families that have child care providers and other care providers, and he told me that up to 30 percent of its customers are nanny-share customers, which I thought was amazing. All of these families are seeing how unaffordable day care is in large cities, they’re seeing how crazily unaffordable nannies are in all of these cities, and they’re finding this happy medium that gives the flexibility and focused 1-on-1 care of a nanny, but it’s 1-to-2 care for, in some cases, less than the cost of day care.

What can men and women do to help change their office policies and work culture to be more accommodating to new parents?

I think that we are at this really amazing point where there are all of these conversations happening in the media, and dozens of private companies are speaking up and talking about family leave. You can harness that energy and that momentum and try changing your own company. I think the most effective way to do that is to talk about why it’s good for your company. Talk in terms of the company’s ability to retain outstanding talent and the company’s ability to recruit great talent because it’s a company that’s progressive about family leave. Talk about all of the great press that companies are generating from the announcements they’re making about their new 16 weeks of paid leave for both men and women. 

Coca-Cola’s case is not progressive in terms of time allotted, but very progressive in that it affords six weeks of paid parental leave to all parents in the company [in addition to the paid maternity leave provided to birth mothers through its short-term disability]. It’s such an important signal that being a parent and taking care of a child is not women’s work. It’s work for parents.

Main image: Allyson Downey, author of Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenting and co-founder of
Allison Hooban 


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