Mary Beth Ferrante
Founder and CEO, Live.Work.Lead
Mom to Caitlin and Abbie
We’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Mary Beth, and it's been such a treat! As a former SVP in the finance industry, her turbulent experience returning to work after having her first child motivated her to create a business that's focused on providing the things she lacked - career support, community and resources to support success as a working parent.
She’s the founder and CEO of Live.Work.Lead. and partners with organizations to retain top female talent by transforming workplace cultures to better support working parents through coaching and training. In addition to corporate programming, Live.Work.Lead. connects & supports expecting and new moms through The M-Suite, a weekly publication, and virtual support network. She’s a regular Forbes contributor and mom to two adorable girls, Caitlin and Abbie.
We had the chance to connect with Mary Beth to learn more about her her experience returning to work and to get our hands on the wisdom she imparts to parents and companies through the work she does every day.
The Returnity Project: Tell us about about yourself and about your experience returning to work after having your oldest daughter.
Mary Beth: Hi, I’m Mary Beth Ferrante. I am a mom of two young girls, a three-and-a-half-year-old and an almost one-year-old. And I’m married to an amazing man who works in the film industry. And I’ve been running Live.Work.Lead for about three years, full-time for a year. Prior to creating Live.Work.Lead, I worked for a large financial institution with 250k employees, and my Returnity experience was interesting. I worked for a company that largely has family friendly policies, and I think they’re really truly doing their best. But with any company, particularly with large companies, it comes down to the subculture of your team.
A couple things happened that really were the impetus for starting Live.Work.Lead. When I got back to work, I had a full load of projects back on my desk within the first day. So it became very overwhelming for me to jump right back into working evenings and late nights and needing to be online late evenings when my baby wasn’t sleeping through the night and we were really struggling with breastfeeding. But the culture of my team was not very understanding of what I had been through. I worked on a team of all men. My senior executive actually had his second child and we didn’t know. And he was out of the office for just a couple days when it happened. So that was the culture I was walking back into. Being with all men as my peer group, I found it really hard to find people to relate to. I actually reached out to some women on my broader team, but all of those women were significantly older than me. And their children were a lot older. And a lot of the advice I got was “it’s going to take time”. When you’re living your life in three hour segments of eat, play, sleep, the last thing I wanted to hear is “it’s going to take time”. Of course now being on the other side of it, I appreciate that guidance. But I think what I was really looking for was the logistics of how to make it work. How to split responsibilities with my husband. How to make sure that I was setting boundaries at work. And how to identify who I was as a working mom.
I’ve always been a very driven, type A personality. Someone who is always quick to respond to email, wanting to do the best that I could at work. Suddenly I was feeling resentful of that. That was a really hard shift for me. And a lot of the women I worked with had older children and often they didn’t even work during the baby years, and didn’t have a lot of insight to provide me. So that made it difficult for me, and really gave way the birth of Live.Work.Lead in the sense that I wanted that connection. I wanted to find other women who felt like I did, who wanted to create that community. I had gone to Mommy and Me when I was on leave, which was awesome. But a lot of those women stayed at home, and they’d be texting about park dates on Thursday mornings, and that would make me even more upset. That was really an important piece of this.
Another thing that I really recognized was that as much as I appreciated people wanting to protect me, I also felt like it was derailing my career. I had actually requested to retain my access to email while I was out on leave, and my company said no. And they said it because they were protecting my time with my baby. And while I appreciate that, none of the men on my team who took leave for a couple weeks were denied access. So they were still staying in touch. I think that it’s really important from a level setting perspective that we treat people how they want to be treated. And that we recognize that every mom, family and baby is different. If someone wants to stay engaged, that’s ok. Nothing overtly discriminatory happened to me, but it felt like there were all of these subtle things that were working against me and really got me inspired to create Live.Work.Lead.
TRP: Did you find that your views about work and career changed after having children?
MB: I’m supportive of women in the workplace and I’ve always been really career driven. I’m the person who read Lean In on her honeymoon! I remember sitting in my senior year of college in a Women In Leadership course and really believing I was going to raise myself to the C-Suite. I have always wanted to find, support and provide more women with leadership opportunities. I think that only heightened for me after becoming a mom and has made me even more ambitious. I think what happened was that I had less tolerance for the bullshit. For the stuff that felt like we were just spinning our wheels for no reason. That we were creating work to create work.
There’s a quote out there from Annabel Crabb that says “the obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.” And I felt that pressure, and felt that judgement from other moms. That the fact I wanted to work was bad, and I was supposed to be resentful of my job. I was supposed to be cooking all of my my baby's meals homemade, and I was supposed to be with her 24-hours a day. That since I struggled with breastfeeding, I was a bad mom. It made me more ambitious in my career in a way I wasn’t expecting. Wanting to open up those pathways for more and more women. We have so many incredible women before us who have broken down barriers. But they often did it at the expense of seeing their children, talking about their children or being really open about motherhood. I think that’s why we’re in the position that we still are today in that it’s still really really hard to be a working mom.
Working mom guilt is real. I definitely felt and I still feel that pressure all the time in what I’m supposed to be doing and feeling pulled in multiple directions. I think the more that we can expose that, share ways to be more flexible and allow more support for childcare, maternity leave and ways to be successful in our own lives becomes such a critical component to all of this.
TRP: As a new mom, how did you go about advocating for yourself and your needs as a mother and professional, especially on a team that was mostly made up of men?
MB: How I went about advocating for myself as a mother and as a professional on a team of men made for a lot of awkward conversations. Mostly because I felt awkward about it. I remember having to share with my manager the schedule I needed for pumping and just feeling really like “I don’t want to have this conversation with him, he doesn’t get it”. He was recently married but wasn’t a dad, and that’s really hard. When I ended up getting permission to move offices to reduce my commute, I had a conversation with the most senior person at the new office and he was a recent dad, and he shared a bit about his wife and her experience breastfeeding. It made it easier for me to say, this is why I need to move to a location closer to my home, and why I need privacy and why I’m looking for an office with a closed door and not just a cubicle. That conversation was much easier because he opened up and shared with me.
The thing I really learned from advocating for myself is it’s not just a one and done conversation. It’s continual. It’s being as open and honest as you’re willing to be and asking for situations that can be temporary. For example, with moving offices, I approached it by saying, this commute is really killing me, I know we have offices closer to my home, is there any way I could temporarily sit there while I’m really struggling with this transition? The benefit from my situation was that I worked within a distributed team and my manager sat on the other side of the country. To him, it really didn’t matter. It was more the logistics and the policy we had to deal with. By starting with it temporarily, I was able to ask people to allow me to have that space on a temporary basis and create relationships with them. I was then able to get permission and get the right approvals, because I needed 10 different approvals, to move my office formally. Something I recommend to all of my clients when looking at any changes to your schedule or where you work is first to start temporarily. As our babies get older, things change, and you may be able to deal with your commute or work from the office more often. If you’re not breastfeeding anymore, maybe it’s easier to be in the office than it is to be at home, because there are definitely challenges in working from home too. Being honest and open is important.
TRP: You have one of the coolest jobs ever - you work with companies to create successful environments for working parents, and with moms and dads to create successful careers that work for themselves and their families. From all of the conversations you've had, on both sides of the coin, what recurring theme about working and parenting has surprised you most?
MB: From the employer standpoint, it’s really the managers. Employers as a whole and people at the executive level are committed to this. The struggle is the execution. I’ve had a manager say to me that at the end of the day, if they have a man and a woman standing in front of them at 28-years-old and they have to hire someone, they’re going to choose the man because they know that person is going to physically be at work more often. So there’s still this strong bias about women taking maternity leave and being the primary parent and having to take off for sick time. While there’s a lot of talk at the top, were not supporting managers to execute well, and to be able to have those conversations. The other things that’s really surprising is that there’s a fear around it. A lot of managers are afraid of what they’re supposed to say, what they can’t say. There’s a fear around open conversations about planning for leave and returning from leave and how we better support parents. I think I knew that, but was surprised to have people say it to my face.
From the mom’s perspective, the thing I hear a lot is that they’re surprised how easy they slipped into traditional gender roles in their relationships. A lot of the women I work with are very career driven. So they had what seemed like very equal partnerships when they were married or dating, both of them were very career driven, both of them had their own lives. But what I’ve found time and again is women saying that they didn’t expect their partners to be so traditional in the way they see their role as a dad of my role as a mom. I didn’t even expect to see myself feeling that way. Unpacking that, being able to have more open conversations with yourself, and also with your partner about how to really manage your family has been eye opening.
TRP: We've had a lot of people in our community message us that as they've returned to work, they're realizing their jobs aren't working for them any longer. Either they're realizing they're not passionate about what they do, or they're seeing that their workplaces aren't supportive of working parents. What should they think about when considering making a career change to support their passions or their new lives as working parents?
MB: When you realize your job isn’t working for you any longer, my first question to you is "why?". What are the things that aren’t working? Is it simply logistics? Is it that you really don’t like what you’re doing? Then take a step back and address if that’s something you can fix or change in your current environment, or if it constitutes a complete career change. If you’re considering making a career change, there are three pillars that you need to be fundamentally reflecting on:
1) The work. What is the work you want to be doing? How do you see yourself spending your time all day?
2) The Industry. What’s the industry that you want to be working in? Some functions exist in every industry. So while you might like the work you’re doing, maybe you’re in the wrong industry for the things that really excite you about your work or align you better with your passion.
3) The culture. This can be the hardest to determine in a job search. You have to be willing to do the research, have conversations and be really open.
Unfortunately, we’re still seeing that moms are getting hired at 79% less than men. Men typically don’t talk about their families in interviews. It’s not often reflected on their resume if they’ve taken a career break for family. They don’t do as much to highlight that they’re a parent. You have to be protective in the beginning. I say you shouldn't talk about being a parent in the first few rounds of interviews. I also think it’s important to understand how companies support their working parents. For most employers, 40% of their population are parents. Find out their benefits, why people really enjoy working there, if they have opportunities for flexibility. That piece becomes important, and it can be harder to discover but it's about taking the time to do the research, talking to people and getting honest answers.
A lot of women have to work and a lot of women want to work. It’s about finding work that excites you and empowers you. We know that there’s a ton of benefits financially, emotionally and even for your children when you’re working, so I think it’s critical that we continue to change the conversation and support more and more women who are choosing to work for whatever reason they do.