VP of People, Process & Culture at Away
Former VP of Transformation at The New York Times
Mom to Matilda and Francesca
If you google the name Erin Grau, you'll encounter article after article sharing an array of ways that this remarkable woman, mother and leader has blazed trails for parents in the workplace.
Erin was one of five women who successfully changed the paid parental leave policy at The New York Times. As their VP of Transformation and a leader of The Times' Women's Network, she partnered with fellow colleagues and spent eight months developing a proposal that they presented directly to the CEO. They used competitive policy data, employee surveys, personal anecdotes, projected costs and an estimated return on investment to build their case. And it worked. The leadership team approved the proposal right then and there, providing 16-weeks paid leave for birth mothers and 10-weeks paid leave for partners and adoptive parents, effective immediately on the first day of hire.
Today, Erin works as the VP of People, Process and Culture at startup Away. And she's continuing to blaze trails in the way that companies support employees through the difficult journey of medical diagnosis and treatment. Erin was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in late 2018, and has been open with her decision to continue working through treatment.
We're honored to feature this amazing woman's story, and hope to empower and inspire more women to advocate for paid parental leave policies with their employers. Read more to learn how Erin and her colleagues developed their proposal, pitched their CEO and created meaningful policy change for all. And join us in sending Erin our best wishes through her cancer treatment.
The Returnity Project: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience returning to work after Matilda and Francesca.
Erin Grau: My husband Jim once told me our daughters wouldn’t know who I truly was if I wasn’t working. I get so much energy from my job and I am lucky enough to have a career that both challenges me and fulfills me.
When I went back to work after my oldest daughter, everything was so hard - dropping her off at daycare, pumping at work, feeling like I was constantly missing something at work or at home. And I’m one of the lucky ones with paid maternity leave and a supportive company!
When I came back from leave, I was talking to a group of friends and fellow leaders at The Times who had either recently become mothers or were pregnant. Over lunch we hatched a plan to improve parental leave for all parents at The Times, and spent 8 months crafting a proposal for our CEO. A month after it went into effect I got pregnant with my second daughter, and my leave the second time around was so much better -- not only was it longer, but there was more institutional support and culturally we had made an even bigger impact. Fathers were taking their full leave (including visible leaders across the business and our publisher!), adoptive parents were able to spend time bonding with their children and felt the company was recognizing them fully as parents (as they should be!), and birth mothers were able to take time away from the office without the pressure to check in to keep their careers on track.
My out-of-office message -- a business case for parental leave -- went viral thanks to another mom I know, Clara Jeffery, Editor of Mother Jones, and because of the attention we received for crafting and advocating for a generous and inclusive policy, employees and companies all over the country reached out to us for help making change in their own organizations. Not only did my own family benefit from the hard work we put into our leave policy, but families I’ve never met have, too, and I am so immensely proud of that!
TRP: What inspired you and the other women who were members of The Women's Network at The New York Times to take action and petition for a new maternity leave policy?
EG: Motherhood made me bolder and more fearless. It forced me think more about the future I was building for my family and the world I was helping to create for my daughters. The women I worked with to push the parental leave policy forward -- Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, Alex MacCallum, Alex Hardiman and Christine Hung -- are four badass women who inspire me as mothers and as leaders. This policy is an example of what women can do when they work together.
We did so much research and became the most educated group in the building on this topic. We knew that 12% of employees in the US have access to any paid parental leave, so having something felt ... adequate. But adequate wasn't good enough. The New York Times is a leader in journalism, advertising, marketing and technology, but when it came to supporting working parents, it felt like it was behind new digital upstarts and traditional media competitors. The policy in place at the time was discordant with our company cultural ideals, and we knew that improving leave would help hire and retain top talent which would be critical to our success. There was a social and moral imperative, but there was a strong business case to be made.
TRP: Take us through the journey from start to finish - where did you begin, how did your process evolve and what were some key and critical milestones along the way?
EG: We took the same rigor to our parental leave policy we did to our day jobs in product, marketing, data and operations. We started with a hypothesis, which we tested and refined. We did research internally and externally. We did a competitive assessment. We got the help of reporter Claire Cain Miller, who writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Times. We sent out a survey to all the recent parents we knew at The Times. Then, we wrote our proposal, which made the business case and outlined the changes we were proposing, weaving in all the data we collected. But we didn't stop there. Our goal was to make it as easy as possible for senior leadership to say yes, so we projected costs and return on investment. We also shared personal anecdotes and wove in the experiences shared by our colleagues. When we left the meeting with senior leadership, an executive (and mother) from the newsroom sent us this email: "I'm really so proud of all of you... I thought of all of the women over many decades who struggled in silence with these issues."
TRP: Making an ask this significant may feel daunting to some who'd like to advocate for policy changes with their employers. How did you know where to begin in the process?
EG: It took us 8 months to go from an idea to a green light from senior leadership, with lots of ups and downs along the way. Before we ever presented the proposal to the executive team, a senior leader at the company told me "it's never going to happen, but good luck." We weren't just writing a policy, we were modernizing an institution. That is so daunting! This is why you do the research and gather data - it's the great equalizer. Become more educated about parental leave - both your current policy, if it exists, and all the research you can get your hands on. Parental leave benefits both mothers and fathers, it increases retention, improves employee morale and productivity, reduces costs to employers and leads to both healthier parents and children. Figure out what matters to your company and speak to that.
TRP: Tell us about the pitch you made to company leadership. How did you frame the story and what data did you use to show the cost/benefit analysis of the policy change you were requesting?
EG: We had the great fortune to have access to some important company data - average age of our employees and where it was trending, how many people took parental leave the previous year and the average employee salary. All of that was helpful in projecting the costs and return on investment. We read a lot of articles - many from The New York Times, we used Fairygodboss.com to do a competitive assessment, and filled in the gaps by reaching out to friends and people in our networks at competitors, and we gauged sentiment and gathered anecdotes from our colleagues in a survey.
TRP: Did you find you needed support from key leaders within the organization throughout this process? If so, what roles were they in and how did you identify them as advocates and champions?
EG: We were all leaders of The Times' Women's Network, an employee resource group, and our executive sponsor COO Meredith Levien (also a mother!) brokered the meeting with our CEO. We had individually met with a few other members of the executive team for both feedback on the proposal and support for it.
TRP: If you were going to go through this process again, is there anything you'd do differently the second time around?
EG: We worked to craft a proposal that would be generous and inclusive, but also one that would be palatable to the company. I wish we pushed harder, not just on the length of parental leave, but sick and bereavement leave, and other ways parents could be supported. Birth is just the beginning.
TRP: Anything else you want to share?
EG: Earlier this year, I joined the startup Away, and a few months later I was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive breast cancer. As the VP of People, Process & Culture, I like to say that I spend my days creating a workplace where my daughters will work one day, and part of that is creating a space that values authenticity. I was the first mother who joined Away, and now I'm the first cancer patient.
Being a mother, wife, employee, cancer patient is crazy and messy, but it all works because I work at a company that values output over hours, in creating an environment that is more human, that supports growing careers as much as growing families, that takes care of employees through their big life moments and delights in their successes, whether personal or professional. It works because I'm at a company that invests in its people as humans, not just employees.
And for the record, we have a very generous and inclusive parental leave policy at Away that we put in place before our first employee went on parental leave!
VP of People, Process & Culture at Away
Former VP of Transformation at The New York Times