Illustration by Julian Glander

This story is part of a series that explores the results of the 2019 Design Census. Read the first story, on recession-proofing your design practice, and the second, on the role of specialization in alternative design education.

One night last year, Stephanie Yung, a successful design director in her early 40s living in New York, woke up in the middle of the night after a tough breakup, feeling like her chances of having a child were now diminishing. She’d never considered having a baby as a single woman before, but that evening, the idea took hold. Thanks to a high-deductible savings account offered by her firm, Smart Design, Yung had accumulated a good chunk of money over the years that she could put towards fertility treatment. Combined with a new paid parental leave policy offered by her employer, suddenly the idea of having a baby on her own and continuing her career—although still daunting—felt a bit more realistic.

America is the only industrialized country not to have government mandated paid parental leave, and 25% of women in the U.S. have to go back to work after just two weeks to make ends meet. And with parents paying nannies an average of $30,160 annually—a full-time salary for many—it’s common for one person in a couple to become the primary, stay-at-home caregiver. Today, that still often falls to mothers.

For Yung, the prospect of supporting her baby all on her own felt near impossible without paid leave and guaranteed job security to help ease her transition into motherhood. The challenge of nurturing both a career and a baby is one many have to consider, and employers aren’t doing much to help: This year’s design census found that only 7% of designers are offered paid parental leave, and one of the benefits offered the least is childcare. The difficulty of balancing childcare with returning to work may also be exasperating the gender wage gap, which currently stands at $0.80 to $1.

Only 7% of designers are offered paid parental leave, and just 0.8% of designers receive employer-provided childcare.

As Jessica Hische, a letterer, mother, and outspoken member of the creative community has said, “If the only way to get ahead (or stay ahead) is to work 12-hour days and every weekend, then female designers will have to choose between having a family and having a career—a choice that doesn’t need to happen if the attitude toward acceptable hours and schedules shifts.”

If we truly want a more equitable and inclusive workplace, then the needs of working parents must be taken into account. And in order to better understand these needs, it’s probably best to ask designing parents themselves what they would find most helpful.

Setting the Bar to the Minimum: Paid Parental Leave

In 2016, staff at the digital product studio Ustwo launched a new pledge for working parents. In the wake of many tech companies announcing progressive parental leave policies, the studio’s co-founder and father of two, Jules Ehrhardt, decided to try and improve the status quo in the creative industry by encouraging agencies to commit to pledging to pay for parental leave

IDEO, Betaworks, and Smart Design were amongst the first to sign on, agreeing to offer their staffers at least three-months paid parental leave along with three-months uninterrupted health insurance, a six-month guarantee that their job will be held open, and a commitment to publish the details of the policy online. The policy isn’t as sweet as those offered by tech giants or as is government mandated by our neighbors in Canada, but for Ehrhardt it was a start—a feasible one, especially for smaller studios with less funds and small teams. 

The onus is on the employers. There’s obviously a moral argument for paid leave: It’s just the right thing to do.

“We realize that in America, political change on this topic is far away,” says Ehrhardt, who was shocked after moving from the UK to discover how limited America’s parental policies are. “Here, the onus is on the employers. There’s obviously a moral argument for paid leave: It’s just the right thing to do. But when we launched the pledge, we knew we also had to build a business case.”

Ultimately, Ehrhardt and his team proved that it does just make good business sense to offer paid leave. It costs more to recruit new people than to offer the benefit, and it makes sense to retain your best talent. To date, 6,000 employees in the creative sector across America are benefiting from the pledge.

Stephanie Yung, design director at Smart Design, pregnant with her daughter.

Yung was the first designer to benefit from the effort, and for her, the new policy at Smart was invaluable. “When I think about only being able to spend two weeks with my baby… I can’t even imagine it,” she says. “Those first 12 weeks are so important for bonding with your child.” At two weeks, most women haven’t even been cleared by their doctor for physical activity (especially those who underwent C-sections). And during the weeks and months after birth, a body needs to heal and recover from the physical trauma of pregnancy and delivery. The postpartum period can also include other challenges—depression, lactation issues, fatigue.

“When you have a baby, you’re extremely sleep-deprived,” says Yung. “And psychologically, you have to get used to your new role and having someone depend 100% on you. I was suffering from postpartum anxiety and I needed time to adjust.” 

Yung took four months off to be with her daughter Sigrid. It was her choice whether or not to go back full-time or part-time, and initially, she decided to ease back by working one day a week from home. Then, she began to go into the office two days a week, then three days a week, before returning full-time. “I needed that flexibility because I needed to prep emotionally to get back to work.”

Better Benefits: A Human-centered Approach

Smart offers a range of benefits that are mindful of the needs of returning mothers. It’s free, confidential counseling service felt particularly helpful to Yung early on, “since the fertility process can be so stressful, and other unrelated stresses can influence the ability to get pregnant.” There are also onsite Reiki sessions, which Yung often takes advantage of today. For the designer, benefits that help manage stress in the workplace are most useful for those going through the fertility process, as well as for single parents. 

“It’s really important for workplaces to take a more human-centered approach when it comes to providing support for working parents,” she says. “This means understanding and being made aware of the range of needs across the different types of family makeups that exist. Strive to be inclusive, and consider everybody’s situation.”

It’s really important for workplaces to take a more human-centered approach when it comes to providing support for working parents.

Yung agrees that one of the largest financial challenges for working parents, especially single ones, is the cost of childcare. The 2019 Design Census found that the benefit offered the least to designers is employer-provided childcare—only 0.8% of designers receive it. If working parents return to work after three to six months in the best-case scenarios, then a baby will naturally require someone to take care of it. But as the cost of childcare is so high that it often comes close to or exceeds an individual’s salary, many end up quitting their jobs. For single parents like Yung, that’s not an option.

For the Los Angeles-based designer and creative director Zach Richter, subsidized backup child care provided by his employer, AR and VR studio Within, was indispensable when his wife decided to foster two children as part of a non-profit she was involved in. 

“The arrangement started out as a short-term commitment and ended up being much longer-term and more important than we ever expected,” says Richter. The two foster girls were four and nine years old when they started living with the couple, but ended up staying with them for two years. “When [the social workers] asked us to keep the girls for longer, we thought through the impact it would have on us on a daily basis, but ultimately we would never have turned away from the opportunity to help see the girls through the huge family transition that was happening.” 

For Richter, Within’s care policy assisted with the huge shift in his daily routine. The company offers babysitting services at a subsidized rate through Helpr, a start-up that provides on-demand, screened babysitters. When companies partner with the service, they can bring down the cost of a sitter to about $3-6/hour for the parent (a sitter would usually cost $16-22/hour). Helpr argues that it also makes business sense to provide childcare as a benefit: American companies lose an average of eight workdays from parents due to childcare gaps, and providing staff with babysitters can help combat stress and burnout. Although it’s part of the gig economy (and so doesn’t provide its own workers with benefits or social protections), Helpr attempts to help companies to step up where it believes the government has failed. It’s trying to convince companies to help with childcare in the same way that they might with health insurance. 

The 2019 Design Census found that 93% of employers are not taking the first steps towards providing even the most basic healthcare for parents, let alone going further and offering some form of childcare as a benefit. “And we need to be careful,” notes Ehrhard of Pledge Parental Leave. “The tech sector is really bumping up its leave policies. If the creative industry doesn’t improve, I think we’re going to see a lot of experienced, great talent leaving for tech when they get to a certain point in their life and careers.”

If the creative industry doesn’t improve, we’re going to see a lot of great talent leaving for tech when they get to a certain point in their life and careers.

A View From the Other Side: Progressive Policies 

In the autumn of 2015, it felt like any ordinary day at Spotify’s U.S. offices until the Swedish company made an announcement regarding a new change in policy. 

With employees in Sweden benefiting from government mandated paid parental leave, Spotify decided to take the country’s progressive approach worldwide, offering all staff up to six-months leave with 100% pay. “Suddenly, everyone in the U.S. offices looked up from their screens at each other and were like, ‘Woah, I can have babies now,’” says Spotify’s former lead growth designer Rahul Lindberg Sen, who is currently based in Stockholm. “It was amazing because it made us all one company.”

Rahul Lindberg Sen with his partner and two children

Spotify offers both mothers and fathers the opportunity to take parental leave, rather than just the “primary caregiver”—historically the biological mother—as is often the case at U.S. companies (a policy that can have an
enormous impact on LGBTQ+ employees and adopting parents). In Sweden, parents of all genders are incentivized by the government to take equivalent amount of leave, in order to encourage everyone to do their part equally—and to help close the gender wage gap.

After years working in the U.S., Sen had his first child in Stockholm while managing a team of designers at the global tech company, and he decided to take three months off after his partner finished her maternity leave. In Sweden, every citizen is eligible for 18 months of paid parental leave split between two partners, and they’re given a percentage of each individual’s salary during that time. Instead of the public policy, Sen took advantage of Spotify’s, receiving full pay for a shorter period of time.

Inspired by the culture around him in Stockholm, his own upbringing in India with a stay-at-home father and a working mother, as well as Spotify’s generous policy, Sen has taken paternity leave twice now. “The first time was challenging for me,” he says. “Suddenly, my whole project was simply going to the park and back every day. It took me a few weeks to stop fake-Slacking people. I struggled because before, I’d been a manager of 12 designers. I would sometimes drop in on the team with the stroller to see how they all were. But my team was like, ‘Why are you here?’” 

When he returned to work, Sen also experienced a deep sense of displacement—so much had changed without him. “The challenge always remains the same: When you step away, you can’t expect to find the same role or reality when you walk back in,” he says. A workplace that truly works towards closing the gender pay gap would be a space where fathers, mothers, and foster parents not only benefit from bonding with their child for the same amount of time, but also a place where all parents share and understand the challenge of returning to work after leave.

The challenge always remains the same: When you step away, you can’t expect to find the same role or reality when you walk back in.

And for Sen, even if a company has the greatest parental leave policy in the world, there are every day challenges and biases in the workplace that go deeper and are harder to tackle. “Especially in the creative world, when you’re surrounded by people in their 20s and early 30s, it can feel like you’re explaining yourself a lot at work,” he says. “Professionally and socially, when you become a parent, you get shelled into another category and there are people you don’t get to hang out with anymore.” 

Spotify’s special, bi-monthly events for parents were very valuable and meaningful to Sen and his family, especially as he felt increasingly left out from after-work drinking culture. “It helped foster new friends, new communities, and new structures. That’s something I really valued.” 

On the other side of the pond in New York, Spotify’s associate creative director Shannon Ross has been on maternity leave for nearly two months now. She’s returning to work in December, and then plans to take the rest of her maternity leave at a later date. “Spotify allows you to split the six-months leave across the child’s first three years,” she says. “I’m splitting it up so that I can get to know my baby, and get him sleep trained. Then when he’s one or two, I want to use a month of that time to be with him as he’ll be older and more aware.”

For Ross, not only has Spotify’s approach to parents been invaluable for bonding with her newborn, but its onsite sessions for upcoming parents are something she’s “eternally grateful” for. “We had an organization come in and give a talk about postpartum depression. I learned how to identify it. I then went through postpartum depression myself, and that session allowed me to identify it early on,” she says.

Shannon Ross with her newborn son

Ross isn’t concerned around returning to the office in a couple months, she feels as if the day-to-day challenges that new mothers usually face will be taken care of. “I know that there are breastfeeding spaces for me. I know that the team will be thoughtful and flexible about how I come back, and that I can work from home, too, if I like. With that side of things covered, it means that I can focus on the emotional part of returning—I can take care of any separation anxiety that I have and my feelings, because everything else will be okay.”

Returning to Work: Combatting Maternal Discrimination

When creative director Francesca Wade was pregnant with her daughter Roshi, she was working in New York as a freelance creative consultant. Wade had to look out for herself in terms of maternity leave, and inevitably her work-life divide became very slippery. Two weeks after her home birth, she was already breast-feeding at her desk while working on book designs, replying to emails whenever possible. 

During her pregnancy, Wade had already determined that she was going to look for a full-time position after she’d spent a year caring for her newborn. “I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a full-time job while I was pregnant,” she says. “I’d already seen that there was discrimination in regards to taking on new clients as a consultant.”

I was told that I would be unable to do my job if I had a baby to go home to, because of the hours required.

Wade continued to work as a freelancer until Roshi turned one. Around that time, Wade also separated from the father. Her first full-time position was as VP of Brand at the Museum of Ice Cream, a title that she only held for three months. “It was a very difficult experience for me in terms of parental discrimination,” she says. “I think a lot of working parents will say this: Having a child shifts your priorities in life completely. After the difficult experience, I became very honest about what’s important to me and what I need.”

Wade left the Museum of Ice Cream in April of this year and started interviewing for a role as creative director at dessert and bakery chain Milk Bar—a position that she now fills. “At Museum of Ice Cream, I was told that I would be unable to do my job if I had a baby to go home to, because of the hours they require,” says Wade.

During her interview for Milk Bar, Wade was “brutally honest” with her interviewer—who is a mother herself—about the fact that she’s single with a one-year-old, and how “that absolutely has to be okay.” She describes Milk Bar as a nurturing, “properly female-led company” that’s mindful of the flexibility that single parent’s need. “I make up my own hours,” says Wade. “That means I sometimes leave at 4:30 p.m. to pick up my daughter from daycare. I spend the afternoon with her—not checking emails, but fully present with my child—and then at 7 p.m. when she’s in bed, I finish the rest of my work day.”

Francesca Wade with her daughter, Roshi. Photos by Ruvan Wijesooriya @byruvan

It’s not only flexibility in the workplace that’s vital for new parents, but facilitates too. At Museum of Ice Cream, Wade describes how her milk stopped coming in because there was no nursing room or consideration for pumping. “They didn’t have enough bathrooms—and all the meeting rooms had glass walls. It was impossible to take 10 minutes away to go pump because it was such a stressful environment. You need a cosy, nurturing space to pump, and a comfortable chair.”

At Milk Bar, Wade says that the nursing room is comfortable with two large armchairs as well as a place to store milk. There’s also a wall where employees can put up photographs of their babies, and a shower—not because cleaning after breastfeeding is necessary by any means, but to help moms unwind and de-stress.

“For companies big or small, there needs to be a recognition that having a child is an absolute shift in a person’s world. If employers could recognize that, it would be a huge step,” says Wade.  

While it’s normal for companies to give their employees paid leave for injuries or illness, it’s not for another completely human thing: bringing another human into the world. Helping employees after leave is also often an after thought. The following list of resources aims to help creative parents with workplace tribulations. There’s also a number of guides to aid employers when it comes to creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace for parents. 

Resources for Working Parents


Resources for Employers