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How 5 black executives at Netflix, Facebook, and other companies navigate motherhood, careers, happiness, and health

Black working mothers face unique challenges, including a $30,000-a-year wage gap. We spoke with five leaders about bias at work, parenthood, and finding support.

How 5 black executives at Netflix, Facebook, and other companies navigate motherhood, careers, happiness, and health
[Photo: kate_sept2004/Getty Images]

Black mothers in leadership positions today face unique challenges. “We’re in this first generation of minority women who are figuring out how to run the PTA, run a multimillion-dollar budget, and be great partners and daughters,” says Dia Simms, president of Combs Enterprises.

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In the U.S., black women hold only 11.4% of management, business, and financial positions held by women, according to a 2018 study by the nonprofit Catalyst. While pressures to succeed at work and home remain constant, there are often limited opportunities to connect with other black women in similar positions. “What I want to see in our generation [is] bosses–and black women in particular–who have children and who are also in positions of power,” says Maya Watson Banks, director of brand and editorial at Netflix.

Black motherhood comes with specific challenges that impact job security and physical health, including higher maternal mortality and disproportionate financial penalties. Those challenges can be especially arduous without support from bosses and coworkers who understand the intersection of race and gender.

We spoke with five black executives about becoming mothers, how they navigated their fears of managing parenting and work, and the importance of finding companies where they could thrive. 

The motherhood penalty

Mothers of all races often experience penalties in the workplace, including being perceived as less competent, getting overlooked for promotions or opportunities, and getting paid less than their male peers. Those penalties are even more severe for black women. According to the National Women’s Law Center, black mothers experience a wage gap of $30,000 a year compared to working fathers. (The national average wage gap for mothers is $18,000 when race is not factored in.)

Banks became a mother at 19 and then entered the workforce a few years later as a new college graduate. During an unpaid internship, she overheard the intern supervisor actively pass her over for an opportunity because she was a single mom. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not getting opportunities because I’m a mom,'” Banks says. “When I started another job, I didn’t tell people that I had a kid for the first three years that I worked there.”

Looking back, Banks thinks this was necessary. “I’ve made the decision that I don’t want to be discriminated against or not get any opportunities and have people make assumptions about me and what I’m capable of because I’m a single mom,” she says.

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Even becoming a mother is more risky for black women. In the U.S., which has the highest  maternal death rate in the developed world, black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Bertie Thomson, vice president of corporate communications at Facebook, grew up in the United Kingdom and was shocked to discover the high maternal mortality rates black women face in this country. She also learned that black women struggle more with infertility. “That wasn’t well known to me until I embarked on my own journey,” says Thomson, who joined Facebook four and a half years ago–around the same time she wanted to start her family. Thomson lost four pregnancies in a row and underwent IVF treatments, before giving birth to her son Montgomery last November.

“We call Monty our Facebook baby,” she says. “The whole team and the company shared in our joy of having him because I’ve been at Facebook the whole time, and my colleagues and friends here have followed along in our journey and been a great source of support to me.”

Workplace culture is key

Having the ability to be open about her infertility, miscarriages, and IVF at work allowed Thomson not to have to hide her pain, sneak off to a doctor’s appointment, or lie about missing days of work. “Choosing a company that has really strong benefits and that is supportive of families is critical,” says Thomson.

Thomson was able to take advantage of Facebook’s infertility benefits that include health insurance coverage for IVF. “It meant that I didn’t have to worry about the cost as a factor, and instead, I could focus on how to get to the place that I wanted,” she says. Facebook’s parental leave policy allowed her to spend almost six months home with her son before coming back to work.

Lack of flexibility or sufficient parental leave may cause some women who are starting families to look elsewhere. Porsha Ellis, who has spent her career working at experiential marketing agencies, recalled working on her feet from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. at a previous job while seven months pregnant with her first daughter, as well as doing manual labor. From that experience she knew her role as an account executive at that agency would not fit the life she wanted as a working mother.

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“I enjoyed the people, and I enjoyed the job, but I just knew that the atmosphere was not going to be what I needed,” she says. “It wasn’t going to be as flexible as I needed it to be.” Before her maternity leave was set to start, Ellis had conversations with colleagues in her network and secured a new position once she was ready to come back to work after her child was born.

After Ellis gave birth to her second daughter in 2017, she decided she wanted to spend more time with her children and became a freelance event producer until she met the founder of Crown + Conquer and joined the team as an account director. “My founder, who I’m also very close with, has two kids, so she very much understands motherhood,” says Ellis. “[It’s] why I started working full-time again.”

Role models matter

Working in the entertainment industry often requires long hours, and Erin Harris, senior vice president of Blue Flame, says she sometimes worried about whether she would be able to give her two children “enough time, enough love, and enough attention.”

One thing she’s found helpful is having her mother as an example of a successful black working parent. “I do know that a lot of women 30 or 40 years ago, weren’t in the same positions as they are now,” says Harris, whose mother, Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, is the chief patient officer of Pfizer. She manages billion-dollar budgets, but still plays an active role in her family’s life. “I think I was one of the lucky ones to see a black woman work her way to the top, and know what that takes. I credit all of my work ethic to my mom.”

Since building her career as a single mother, Banks has now become that role model for other parents at Netflix, she says. She manages a team of 25 employees, some of whom are parents.

Banks says she understands that her employees who are parents won’t be productive if they’re not able to do what they need to for their family. “I make it a point to say: You have space here to be a parent and to work. You can’t be great at work when your family life is not great, or you feel like your kids are struggling, because as a parent, you’re only as happy as your kids are.”

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More visibility is needed

Banks wants to see more black women in positions of power who have what she calls “the trifecta”–they’re married, have children, and are happy. “It’s my personal mission to figure this out,” she says. “I don’t think that it’s fair that we don’t have more examples and people to look to.” Various organizations are working to fill this gap in representation, including District Motherhued (which produces the annual Momference) and Moms In Color.

Ellis herself is creating a community via her online platform Mission Mama. “People either see you as this successful black career woman or a black mother, but they don’t see you as both,” she says. Her mission is to showcase black mothers who hold powerful positions and who are doing important work across industries. “I want for us to have a community within the larger mom community that is geared toward our needs, our wants, and the things that we’re interested in,” she says.

For Thomson, visibility comes in the form of taking her leadership position seriously. “[I’m] doing the best that I can to support and lift up other black women who are either in leadership positions or aspire to be, and having the strength to talk about my challenges,” she says. “It isn’t always a straightforward path to either parenthood or leadership, and by supporting one another, we can help lift one another up,” she says.

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