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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How One Man Helped Change Maternity Leave for His Wife—and His Entire Company

When Damon Grimes and his wife Kristy Vance were expecting their first child, they knew life was going to get a lot more complicated. What they didn't know was that the most complicated part might be navigating paid parental leave.

They met in Chicago in 2004 through his roommate's girlfriend. Soon after getting married in 2010, they moved to the New York City area and were both working for Unilever when they found out they were pregnant with their daughter, Avery.

Damon is Unilever's Senior Brand Manager of Innovation for Talenti, meaning he gets to spend a large part of his day tasting ice cream and gelato. Clearly, this is the best job in the world (take this to heart; the American Dream is still alive and well).

But it wasn't all sprinkles and cream when Damon and Kristy got their first taste of trying to figure out Kristy's maternity leave. "It was far more confusing than it should have been," he says.

At the time, Unilever was only offering six weeks of maternity leave, with the option of applying for short-term disability benefits through the state of New Jersey which would last an additional six weeks. While Damon and Kristy were more than happy to fill out the necessary paperwork, it was complicated and lengthy.

And then there was the larger issue—disability can only pay so much, and Kristy would only bring in about $500 per week. While this would be ideal in some parts of the country, it's a a near impossible feat given the cost of living just outside of New York City.

"If you wanted to make it as hard and difficult as possible," he jokes, "this is what you would set up."

Advocating for Change

Damon started to do his homework and looked at what other larger companies were doing with parental leave. Many industry leaders were offering four months to all new parents—both mothers and their partners. Other companies were just as competitive.

He began to write emails to his leadership and HR, vocalizing what needed to be changed and pointing out what some of the company's competitors were also doing.

"They [Unilever] were confused as to why a guy was reaching out to complain about the maternity leave policy," he says. After all, "My wife doesn't share the same last name as me."

While it took them a little bit to connect the dots of why he was so passionate about modernizing the policy, it proved effective. "It caught people off guard, and I get far too much credit for being vocal than I actually deserve," he said.

He didn't know that this was something already in the works at Unilever, but alerting leadership to the plight working moms and dads face may have helped carry the ball over the goal line.

Making Strides in Gender Equality

Halfway through Kristy's maternity leave, Unilever announced it was changing the company's policy, increasing the amount of time off from six to 10 weeks and grandfathering the couple in under the new policy.

"I’ll never forget the day HR called me," Kristy said. "I was planning on coming back to work in 1 week–but HR called to tell me they had extended maternity leave and I had an additional 4 weeks to take! I was so shocked, I was speechless. What a blessing. Those final weeks were even more meaningful and I literally soaked up every second."

In just two and half years, Unilever's now gone from 10 weeks of paid leave to 16. And fathers are now given four weeks of paternity leave, something Damon hadn't even mentioned when he was petitioning for something that was supposed to be beneficial to working moms. In addition, Unilever has a flexible work policy, giving employees the ability to work from home, or anywhere, when needed.

"Having an agile workplace makes it that much easier to be an active parent and a good employee," he adds. And Kristy agrees, "We moms need a strong support system to make it work—it needs to, of course, consist of your significant other and family, but also your employer."

When Unilever participated in the HeforShe movement for gender equality in the workplace, Damon, and other men in the office, jumped right on board, creating the Men's Working Group to figure out how men can be better allies to their female counterparts. "It's more about listening and having a normal conversation about what needs to be done and where can we help versus just assuming we have all the answers," Damon says.

Babies on Board

Being able to transition into parenthood so easily meant the world to Damon and Kristy. "I considered it part of my job as the the other parent," Damon says, "making sure Kristy never had to choose between her career and being a mother."

This September, the couple will welcome their second child, a boy, and they'll be able to breathe a little easier knowing that they won't have to fill out enough paperwork to fill a New Jersey landfill.

Damon will take on the nightly duties, something he's all too happy to help out with. "I've always been night shift," he says. "I can survive on less sleep than my wife."

Lucky for him, there'll be plenty of ice cream in the freezer to get him reacquainted with those first sleepless nights.