From September 27, 2019, through October 6, 2019, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) held the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar (“athletics” is what we Americans call “track and field”). The meet was highlighted by several women who recently had children excelled on the track.
Allyson Felix stopped racing early into the 2018 track season due to pregnancy and had an emergency C-section and gave birth to a daughter in November of last year. Already the most decorated female in U.S. Olympic history, Felix surpassed sprint legend Usain Bolt by earning her twelfth and thirteenth world championship gold medals and now has the most world championship titles of any track athlete.
Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce—arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time (among other accolades, Fraser-Pryce was Olympic champion in the 100 meters (m) in 2008 and 2012, as well as the world champion in that same event in 2009, 2013, and 2015)—missed the 2017 track season due to pregnancy. After giving birth to a son in August 2017, Fraser-Pryce returned to competition this season and captured yet another 100-meter world championship in Doha, running a blistering 10.71 seconds (just one one-hundredth of a second slower than her Jamaican national record time of 10.70, which she ran in 2012).
In addition, American Nia Ali captured a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles within 18 months of having her second child, while China’s Liu Hong won the women’s 20-kilometer race walk after giving birth to a daughter at the end of 2017 (and taking more than 2 years of maternity leave).
A Lesson for Employers
These women athletes became pregnant, gave birth, and have raised children, all while being among the best in the world at their chosen profession. Based on their experiences, here are just a few (intertwining) things that employers should consider when supporting expectant and new mothers in the workplace:
- Maternity leave leads to good outcomes: Each of the athletes discussed above took time off work due to their pregnancies and to care for their children. And all of them went on to become world champions. (For her part, Felix has become a steadfast advocate for working mothers. In July 2019, after publicly pushing for companies that sponsor athletes to provide maternity leave protections, Felix signed an endorsement deal with women’s apparel brand Athleta that includes “full protection during maternity” and will enable Felix to continue to be a “champion[-] [for] women and girls.” In addition to fighting for maternity leave within athletics, Felix has used her platform to bring attention to the alarming rate at which Black mothers in the United States die during childbirth.)
- A gradual return to full employment is sometimes helpful: In a 2018 Forbes article titled “Employers, It’s Time to Prove You Value Working Moms,” Selena Rezvani noted the following: “One study found that 70% of women feel anxious about taking a career break. For many, that may be because there’s an expectation things should click right back into place when they return from leave (a setup that is not for everyone). At Procter & Gamble, new mothers are allowed to gradually increase or adjust their hours, work from home, compress their schedules, or take leaves of absence (in addition to receiving peer mentoring when they come back from maternity leave).”Fraser-Pryce gradually worked her way back into form. After her son Zyon was delivered via C-section, she waited several months before lifting weights and skipped practices as necessary to ensure optimal health.
- Allow for flexibility upon a mother’s return to work: With new children come new personal obligations, including medical appointments and school-related meetings. Flexibility is paramount. As articulated by Sara Langer in a 2018 Mother magazine piece: “When work flexibility is embraced, both employers and employees thrive. Employers can expect financial savings, increased productivity, lower turnover, reduced absences, a better corporate culture, and many more benefits. The upside for employees include being more positively engaged in work and life, better health, time savings, reduced stress, having healthier relationships, and a greater sense of overall happiness.”
Ali’s need for flexibility was especially pronounced. Although she lives in Florida, Ali participates in training sessions in Germany. On one occasion, Ali took a break from training in Europe so she could fly home for a parent-teacher conference for her oldest child, Titus. According to Ali, “It was important for me to be there and get a good feel of what he’s going to have to go through this year.”