26 September 2023

The mothers accused of ‘collecting salary while sitting on your ass’

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A text message to a woman on maternity leave went viral recently, Angela Priestley* says the text is symbolic of wider workplace issues and how care work is undervalued.

A text message accusing a new mother of “collecting salary while sitting on your ass” that went viral said everything about how care continues to be devalued, as well as the expectations of gratitude that continue to load on women when they take paid parental leave.

When a new mother returned from parental leave to her law firm in Cleaveland Ohio, she received the above comments in a single message from a male colleague, who also went on to call out the woman’s “character”, describe her as “soulless and morally bankrupt” and threaten to attack her reputation to anyone who makes “inquiries” about her.

So what did the new mother do to stir such a reaction?

She resigned from her job at the firm Zashin & Rich, shortly after returning from leave.

The message sender also went on to declare he had “suspicions” that she had been interviewing for a new role two months ago, and he told another colleague (who appears to be the managing partner of the firm) to “cut you loose at that time” if she confirmed that she had.

The message went viral after being posted to LinkedIn (with the receiver’s consent, who remains unnamed) by Kelley Barnett, another US-based attorney.

Her post has since sparked thousands of comments, numerous opinion pieces, and editorials across the United States, and came to our attention here thanks to Lawyers Weekly, quoting Australian lawyers who highlight how the message is disappointing but not surprising, reflecting how parental leave can be a benefit “begrudgingly given to mothers as a check-box”.

But it was what came in the days following Barnett’s post that was particularly disappointing.

In the first statement from the firm in response to the outcry (which has now been deleted), managing partner Stephen Zashin said that he was aware of the “inappropriate and unprofessional” text message, before somewhat attempting to make justifications for the sender, noting that it was “sent in the heat of the moment” in response to his colleague pursuing other employment while on “paid leave”.

Still, Zashin did add there was no excuse for the message being sent, and that the firm stands by its diversity and fair treatment stance.

He said they were taking “corrective action” and that “while we cannot undo the past, we can change the future.”

But that corrective action did not immediately involve addressing or correcting the offending employee (a partner no less, who specialises in employment law) who sent the text.

Nor did the statement involve a clear apology to the woman who had received the text.

Rather, following further and significant backlash against the firm, the statement was deleted, and the colleague who sent the message, Jon Dileno, later confirmed that he had done so to a local US media outlet, where he apologised, saying it did not “reflect my values nor the values of Zashin & Rich,” and I am sorry for any hurt that I may have caused.”

The next day, Dileno was no longer working with the firm.

The managing partner then gave a much stronger statement and actually apologized for the text.

It’s a story that happened in the United States – one that has had huge publicity following a LinkedIn post that went viral – but one nonetheless that so many in Australia can also relate to.

New mothers receive such messages all the time.

They may not be so literally spelled out as this text message, but they come in the form of subtle jives here and there, of missed opportunities, of being overlooked for promotion, and of people believing a mother should be forever grateful for receiving a few weeks of paid leave in return for the opportunity to “sit around” with a newborn — usually for much longer than the paid period offered.

The difference here also is that the message was called out.

Big time.

On posting the screenshot of the text message to LinkedIn, Kelley Barnett said in her post that in “no universe” should such messages be acceptable and that “deplorable behaviour” in law firms should not go unchallenged.

“Firm culture is defined by (among other things) what is tolerated, not the words and pictures on firm websites and marketing materials.

“It’s defined by the boots-on-the-ground reality taking place in firm halls, offices and conference rooms,” she said.

She then went on to address “law firm leaders”, imploring them to “closely look at whether your firm is one that truly promotes civility, respect and inclusion for all.”

Culture, she added, “is not something you artfully design and direct. Culture is an outcome.

“It’s a continuous, everyday reality check on what kind of firm you’re actually running.”

The message in the text is also symbolic of how care work is and continues to be devalued.

It suggests the law firm partner saw his work, as far more important and valuable than the work a new mother puts in to care for a newborn — an attitude continues everywhere.

It suggests that mothers should be in debt to companies should they receive any form of paid parental leave.

And it implies that new parents should have to essentially “serve time”, not only for a year or two prior to ever taking paid parental leave, but also for a long period after returning from leave.

*Angela Priestley is the Founding Editor of Women’s Agenda, and now heads up the publication’s parent company Agenda Media.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au

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