#13: Who gave you permission to slow down my career?

Mar 6, 2024

E13_Mita (feed)About The Episode

Need a book suggestion – something you can read front to back in one sitting?

Look no further than Mita Mallick’s new book Reimagine Inclusion: Debunking 13 Myths To Transform Your Workplace.


Well, for starters - it clearly outlines the problems associated with various DEI efforts and gives actionable advice on ways to do your part to fix them.

One of the chapters is dedicated to why having a paid parental leave policy isn’t enough to support women - and we were thrilled to invite Mita to the podcast to dive into this topic.

In the episode, we talk about why she started her career as a marketer in the beauty industry at companies like Avon and Johson & Johnson before transitioning to a focus on DEI. 

Mita shares some of the biggest assumptions she’s seen around working motherhood, how companies can avoid “mommy tracking” and we end with one of our favorite segments: hot takes.

Links & Resources


Disclaimer: This podcast transcript is autogenerated and may contain minor errors or discrepancies

Allison: Hi Mita. Thank you so much for joining me today on The False Tradeoff.

Mita: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited for our conversation.

Allison: I read your book, Reimagine Inclusion, in preparation for this interview. And I'll be honest, I read it because we wanted to bring you on the podcast. And so I thought I'm just going to read the things that matter to me and my business. Next thing you know, fast forward, I've read it cover to cover. And we are actually implementing several of the things that you discuss in there. 

So I was telling you like I could talk to you for two hours because there's all this other stuff around diverse slate, for example. I'd never heard about that before. Now it's something that we have implemented as part of our hiring process. 

Before we get into your book, I wanna start with just a little bit of your background. You started off in the beauty industry, which is an interesting choice for somebody who always felt that you didn't belong. You talk in the book about how you've always been seeking inclusion. Why did you make that choice?

Mita: Oh my gosh, yes. That's the first time someone's asked me that question. 

First, thank you for having me. Second, that's exactly why I wrote the book. You made my day. Like, you made my year. That's amazing. Thank you. 

Allison: I mean, I loved it. And it's very tactical as well, which I really liked. It's like I could read it and actually go and do it as opposed to the whole book being about why DEI is important. Like I know why it's important. This actually told me what to do. So anyway, loved it.

Mita: Oh, that's awesome. But yeah, the third piece about beauty, you know, I never saw myself reflected in the world of beauty and I didn't grow up feeling very beautiful. The world sent me a lot of signals that I didn't belong and that I wasn't worthy and that I wasn't pretty. And so it was a really interesting choice to actually go into the world of beauty because I do think it's become so much more about confidence and embracing who you are. And I do hope that evolves for all of our children. I'm certainly seeing it evolve for my daughter and son.

Allison: What were some of your big wins in the beauty industry?

Mita: Oh gosh, one of my biggest wins was citing the amazing Viola Davis to help turn around the Vaseline brand and she was our Vaseline healing project ambassador. And that was incredible to meet her in person and film with her on many occasions. And she does not fall from the pedestal, you know, when you have people that you really look up to and then you meet and they don't disappoint you in person. She's one of those people. So it's pretty incredible.

Allison: That's amazing. You stayed in marketing in the beauty industry for quite some time. Then you transitioned into doing more, I don't wanna say traditional DEI work, but that was a pretty big shift, I have to imagine. What happened to convince you? I mean, you've had this thread of inclusion throughout your career, but it's very different to be in a marketing role in a beauty company and then shift gears to focus on DEI inclusion. Was there one thing that happened or was this a gradual growth throughout your career?

Mita: The one thing that happened was my then CEO came to me three times asking me to do this job and I didn't want to do it because I saw myself as a marketer. I had my own biases about what it meant to be a chief diversity officer, what it meant to be on the people team. All of the things were human. We all have bias. And it was my younger brother who said, if you know the history of who you are and everything you've been through, why wouldn't you want to do this role to be a change agent and make change in a company? 

And when I took the role, the world continued to change. But now I think more people are understanding, like yourself, inclusion is a driver of the business. I know you've always believed that, but not many people have. And early on when I was doing this work, I'm like, it's more than just about the workforce. It's also about products and service. It's about supplier diversity. It's about values, all the things I talk about in Reimagined Inclusion. 

But yeah, I was actually asked to do the role. And sometimes it's a lesson in life and career. People see something in you that you don't see in yourself. They see something else for you that's bigger than what you could have imagined. And I've been grateful for that opportunity and that assignment, because it changed the trajectory of my career.

Allison: What was harder than you expected and easier than you expected when you made that career pivot?

Mita: Easier because I understood the business. I am still a business leader. And so I don't care who you are, you're selling something. And so when you are sitting in a function like the chief diversity officer role or anything that say people role, a legal role, anywhere in the business, you have to understand how the business runs, right? You have to understand how the business is doing versus the marketplace. 

I tell everybody don't be sitting down here like this, like I did, looking down at my laptop. Look up and look around. Understand what's happening at your company and also how the external marketplace is impacting your company's potential. And so that was one of the things that was one of my superpowers was that I have an MBA and I understand how business runs and works. And so I didn't need as much upskilling in that. 

But boy, did I not anticipate that, oof, this work is emotional and it's personal. And it's not as easy as when we set targets and someone used to say to me, you have to sell this many bottles of lotion to Walmart. Nobody would have ever said, go sell some bottles of lotion and see what happens. But all of a sudden, when we assign targets in this work, we get uncomfortable. We get uncomfortable. Why do we have, what do you mean by goals? What do you mean by targets? Why do we need that? Isn't it just the best person for the job?

Allison: Right. That's a great segway into the book. So the book is called Reimagine Inclusion, Debunking 13 Myths to Transform Your Workplace. Why did you decide to write a book now?

Mita: Well, I wrote the book four years ago. I finally got a book deal. That's the truth. I wanted to write this book because I thought about all the things that actually hold us back from making meaningful progress, the things we don't talk about, the quiet parts I'm saying out loud. And you can tell from some of the titles of the chapters. And I did that intentionally because I thought to myself, it's like the bedtime stories I tell my children at night.

Allison: And why? What happened that made you think I want to write a book?

Mita: What are the bedtime stories we tell each other in our workplace? What are the stories that just aren't true? And listen, there's a lot of great books on leadership, inclusion right now in the marketplace. And I thought if I'm gonna write a book, I want to add a different point of view and I want people to really pay attention.

Allison: I mean, I will say the chapter titles are very disarming in a way that makes you sort of laugh. And then I think digest the content easier. So I loved it. I also thought, you know, the chapters are short. They have a lot of tactical recommendations. How were you hoping the reader uses it? Who is this book for and what is success to you in terms of what they do after they read it?

Mita: Thank you. This book is for anybody who's working in a corporation. I would also argue nonprofit or government sector, but having come from corporate and being in corporate. And I say it's for every level, because too often we are waiting for the CEO to do something. And I'm not saying that the CEO doesn't have a particular burden. Of course she does. 

But what I am saying is that we as individuals make change. And so I really, as you said, at the end of every chapter, leave a lot of practical tips, because that's how I learn. And what are the three things you want to show up tomorrow at work and start to do differently? That's the tipping point. Imagine if every single person in the company showed up to work tomorrow and chose one thing to do differently in a positive way. What's the ripple effect it can have? And that's what I really wanted people to think about. The book is expansive, as you say.

I take on 13 myths. 13 is my lucky number, so we won't overanalyze that. But you don't need to be doing all 13 at once. Think about one or two things. And you had just said, which meant so much to me, that you're actually implementing a few of those things, which is amazing.

Allison: And I will note, we're a very small company and still I pulled a lot from this book. I think oftentimes people think, oh, diversity, equity, inclusion, that's a big company problem. I mean, we're 10 people plus our coaching team and this is really important. And I think also what I took from this book is like, if we want to grow well quickly, this is important to get ahead of.

We don't want to be passive and just sort of wait until all of a sudden there's a problem. So I was surprised at how much I took from this, especially coming from a small company perspective, because I do think sometimes people think DEI is like a Fortune 500 type problem. 

Mita: Yes! I love that.

Allison: So let's talk about obviously my favorite myth was myth eight. You titled this. “Of course, we support women. We just extended maternity leave.” Tell me about that.

Mita: I love that voiceover as I take a sip of my tea. You could have done the audible version for me. That's exactly the way I wanted the titles read. I did do the audible version, which was pretty amazing. 

So why did I write that myth? Because not all, I mean, where do we start? Not all women will become mothers. And building an inclusive culture for women is not about building an inclusive culture for mothers, right?

And then if I unpack that further and go back to the mother piece, why is it that we're focusing on mothers and not fathers and all parents? And that so many of the things that I've seen organizations do is the policy piece and it's really the cultural piece that matters. And gosh, my children are now eight and 11. And there's so many more things I need from my employer and my community when my children are now eight and 11 versus when they were newborns. And so thinking about how you support all parents at every stage of the journey. 

And finally, and I know you have a lot of thoughts on this part of the book, but the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood premium are real. And I wish and I hope that when my daughter and son enter the world of work, it doesn't exist anymore, but it still does and research shows. 

And so what that means is the fatherhood premium is for every child my husband and I have had together. For him, he's seen as more stable, more committed, more ambitious. His salary will go up as a result. 

And I am a disheveled mess, right? I am seen as less ambitious, less dependent. All the things I've heard throughout my career, if you're here, who's watching your kids? You're having a stranger watch your kids? How is your vacation? Why are you so ambitious? Your kids are so young. Just slow down. It's all right. Take a step back. Are you sure you don't want to do part-time? I mean, I could go on and...

Allison: And those are questions that are never asked of fathers. Yeah. I was going to ask you, and you kind of already answered this. So the reason I love the title of this is our entire sales pitch is that the policy is one thing, but it can actually backfire in many different ways. Not only in the ways that you're describing, which is that it can alienate the non-parents if you think that that's going to solve things for women. 

But also if you roll out a much longer policy and then you don't help people figure out, well, how do we support this person leaving work? And what happens to the manager and the teammate who are parents or non-parents? It can have all of these negative implications. 

Mita: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah.

Allison: I'm curious what you have found to be the biggest assumptions. You've been in rooms with senior leaders who call out a lot of them in this chapter, things that senior leaders will say that are harmful to especially working mothers, the assumptions that you're hearing. 

And what do you say in the moment when somebody says that in front of you? What is the right way to respond when you see someone saying those things?

Mita: The biggest assumption I hear or I've heard over and over again in subtle and not so subtle ways is that it is the woman's job to care for her family. That's the underlying bias. And that starts from our homes, for me, certainly from a cultural perspective in the way I was raised, media, film. 

You know, I've heard so many things, Allison, like, Mita is up for a big traveling job, but she just had a new baby. We're not gonna put her up for the job. I have a story I share in Reimagined Inclusion where I was up for a big role. All my career sponsors were like, go for it, it's your job. Just had my daughter. She was about nine, 10 months at this time when I was back at work. 

And I went to my then boss and the former manager said to me, you have two young kids at home, you can't take this job. You're not gonna travel this much, and he would not let me apply for the job and took my name off the slate, which you know in large companies happens often, you need approval from your manager. It's just how it is. 

And I wish I had said to him, who gave you permission to slow down my career? Who gave you permission to slow down my career? And I see this happening over and over again. So what can you do in the moment? Have we asked Allison what she wants and needs? Do we know what her career ambitions are? Has anyone checked in with her since her last performance review?

Why don't we talk to her first? Because in all the times, and listen, I haven't worked everywhere, but in all the times I've heard these conversations, like you said, I haven't heard those comments be made about men. How is Jim gonna look after his children? Can he travel and do that job? Because he just had a newborn, I don't know. We should ask him. Maybe next year Jim can get the promotion. Like, I haven't heard it. If someone listening has heard it, please let us know. I'd love to hear that story.

Allison: Yeah, we actually had a father on our team who had a baby. And we have quarterly off sites because we're fully remote. We decided to have our off site in Boston, where he lives, because he had a two month old or three month old at the time at home. And it was like, he's coming back. And I said, well, I don't want him to have to leave the baby when the baby is three months old. 

Mita: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Allison: I realized afterwards, and I mean, we live and breathe this space. So of course I'm much more sensitive to this. But then I realized like, I wonder if most people would have thought of that. Because you do think of a mother and not pulling the mother away from the child. But I was like, oh man, he's got a three month old at home. We don't wanna make him travel. We can go to him. I mean, we're a very small company so we can make those choices. But it does strike me how often we just don't think about the fathers in that way. And...I would say when we do think about mothers, it's often benevolent discrimination, right? It's like, what we see from managers all the time is their intentions are really good. They're trying to be nice, right? It's like, oh, I don't want her to have to leave the baby. You're not a bad person. You're trying to think of the right thing. Exactly.

Mita: Right, but you haven't asked her. You haven't asked her what she wants. We're making assumptions from your own point of view and also often from your own cultural ends or biases you don't know you even have. You know, I remember working with a senior leader who was part of a team where they would have stand ups every Monday morning. And the stand ups were at 8 AM. And it was right as when she was dropping her son off at school. And she said to the head of the group, I can't make the stand ups. So can we change the time?

And what did he say? Just as you said, great intentions. He said to her, oh, no, you don't have to make the stand up. Don't worry about it. I'll fill you in later in the day. And she was like, no, but you don't understand. I'm asking you to move it because I want to attend. And it happens to be right as I drop my son off at school. So if we moved it 30 minutes back or picked a different time, I could do it. But that goes to the intent impact piece.

Allison: Yeah. You write in the book about how often it's you're telling this conversation about how there's a senior leader who says, well, women are quitting because they're staying home or after parental leave. Women are quitting after parental leave because their husband makes a lot of money and they don't need this anymore and so they can stay home. And your response is no, exit interviews show they're leaving for promotions to go somewhere else. Tell me more about that scenario. Why did you include that?

Mita: Because one, employees are a forgotten consumer, particularly women. We spend so much time thinking about the external marketplace. How many people are actually going through exit interviews? It's a goldmine of insights to think about what you can be doing better. And so one of the first things I did was, in any role I take, is going through the exit interviews. And particularly, if you have high attrition of women, what's going on in a certain part of the org, in certain pockets? What if it's across the organization? 

And part of it was that women were leaving, in particular, this very large public company, because they wanted to get promoted faster, they wanted more compensation, but they also wanted equity. They wanted to go to smaller places where they felt like their role and their impact could be larger than what they were having in a Fortune 10.

Allison: And yet the leaders look at mothers leaving and they just assume, oh, they're dropping.

Mita: They didn't believe it. Yeah. They're dropping out. They just had a baby. Who's going to take care of the baby? Has to be her. Husband moved. She's moving with the husband. And we make up all these scenarios, make up all these stories that, listen, does that happen? Yeah, of course it happens. Is that the whole story? No. And so we make up stories to explain what's happening and also to excuse ourselves so that we can say, well, we know the story and the answer, we can't actually solve for that, so there's no work for us to be done, right?

Allison: Right. One of the things that I find most difficult in my day to day is when we meet with people, doesn't matter what their role is, because we meet with managers who aren't in HR, we meet with employee advocates, whatnot. When we talk to someone from a large company, so I'm talking, you know, Fortune 500.

And they say, we talk about parental leave and how it can be really difficult. It can be hard on the manager. It can be hard on the teams who are covering. It's everyone. It's not just the expecting parent. And we talk about this and we say, this is a big problem. And they say, well, we don't have that problem. And for me, that is so hard because, I mean, come on. You're a massive company. So of course, the problem exists even if it's just one person. 

I struggle in that moment, I get very emotional to your point of how this space can be very emotional. I struggle to figure out what to say at that point when someone says, well, we don't have this problem. We are very supportive of new mothers, new parents, because we have this great policy. What would you say back to that? What do you use to convince people?

Mita: Well, the first thing I would say as you're bringing this up is we can't change what we won't discuss. This is the problem, right? Like when you pretend the problem doesn't exist, how can you solve for it? So that I'll just put that out there. 

But it's a really interesting moment for you to say, Mita, tell me more. I'd love to learn more about some of the tactical things you're doing, because my god, if you don't have a problem, you should be shouting it from the rooftops. Because then Allison and her company, actually, if that's really true, you guys have no need to exist, which we know is not true. 

But tell us, what's the secret sauce? What are you doing? Are you using consultants to backfill individuals going on leave? Are you doing performance review check-ins before and after parents come back from leave? Are you checking in on their career goals after they? Tell us. Tell me more. I want to know all the secrets. What are you doing? And then it's like, huh, be interesting to see what their response is.

Allison: Yeah, I love that. Cause I think sometimes I struggle in that moment where I think it's my emotional…like that's not true. It's like everybody has this. And so then I lose my ability to be more compartmentalized about this, which I'm sure you struggle with in your role as well, with all different emotional pieces here. 

Mita: It's hard, it's hard.

Allison: So let's talk a little bit about mommy tracking, which is kind of related to parental leave stuff, but it's also slightly different because that can happen at any point in a mother's career. 

You mentioned this in your book as you talk about we need to avoid that mommy tracking. How does that show up after the parental leave period? How does that show up when let's say you start at a company, you're already a mother, so you're not going through the parental leave experience, which we know is like a major problem, vulnerable moment in careers. But if you're a new hire an organization, you have children, but you're not going through parental leave. How do you get mommy tracked at that point?

Mita: Hmm, that's a great question. It goes back to the role we expect mothers to play in society. So if I am a mother who's working outside the home at a company, you have bias in your mind potentially about what I should and shouldn't be doing. And so you might do things like, Mita, shouldn't take the traveling assignment. There's a job share that she might wanna do. Does she wanna do part-time work? Does she no longer want to run a P&L and maybe go into a supporting function? Now, here's the thing I want to say. All of those are valid choices. Just don't make them for me. They're all valid choices. I've had many friends do job share part time when their children were younger, women who have taken time out of the workforce and then reentered. 

Careers come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone's journey is different. But no one should be making choices for me that I'm not comfortable with without asking me for my permission and assuming because I am a mother and I have however many children or my family's expanding, that all of a sudden I no longer care about my job.

Allison: Exactly. You've hit the nail on the head because when we come in and we coach through parental leave, we're oftentimes asked by companies, oh, is your job to convince people to return to work? And we say, no, our job is to help them make their own decision. And I think that companies would be shocked how often our job and by our, I mean our coaches, is to help people just voice what they want. And it's rarely convincing people, oh, you want to quit for real and now we're going to convince you to stay. 

It's usually, I want to quit because all these things are broken. And we realize, well, they don't need to be broken. You can solve this. But how do you actually make this choice for yourself? And if you do want to quit and stay home, that is absolutely a wonderful choice when it's your choice.

Last question about this. And then I want to move on to some hot takes. How will companies know if they are successful? You talk about what gets measured. How can companies, what should they be looking at to see if they're doing a good job retaining women and mothers specifically?

Mita: You can look at retention rates of mothers. This is a really interesting statistic to look at. Let's say I just had my child a year ago. Have I stayed or have I left? If I had my child five years ago and I'm still with the company and I had the child at this company, that's really great retention. So you can look at that as one measure. You can also look at pay. We talk a lot about this, the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood premium.

Wouldn't it be interesting if you worked, and I know so many companies are quietly doing pay equity analysis behind the scenes with legal counsel and outside firms, what if you actually looked at the cut by mothers, individuals who identify as mothers versus fathers who are in similar roles and to see what kind of pay discrepancy you might come up with? So I think that's really good, yes.

Allison: Thank you. Last thing I would add to that is I would encourage companies to look at both one year after someone returns from parental leave and longer, because we've seen interesting trends where they'll say, well, actually, our retention goes up the first year after they come back from parental leave, and then it tanks. And I totally get that, because it's like when you're a new parent, the last thing you want to do is throw your job up. Everything at home is a mess.

Mita: That's true, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So that's why I like the one in the five years, right, to see. And how that person's progressed and how you've been able to grow and support their career is so important.

Allison: Yeah. Okay. We're going to move on to the final part of this interview hot takes / quick hits. I'm going to throw out a few different things and I just want your very quick reaction to it. Like the first thing that comes to your mind doesn't need to be one sentence. 

First thing that comes to your mind when I say the portrayal of moms in pop culture and how it impacts DEI.

Mita: We're not superheroes. I'm gonna take my cape and crown off and take a long nap. So the superhero mom needs to, that stereotype needs to be busted.

Allison: The best path forward for, this is a big one, the best path forward for Chief Diversity Officer role, per your byline in Fast Company, the article that you wrote.

Mita: We need companies that are going to be funding these rules properly and building them into the infrastructure. That's why CDO roles are going. It's not because CDO candidates aren't talented. It's because companies haven't set them up for success, many companies.

Allison: Best and worst DEI efforts or campaigns that you've seen from brands.

Mita: Oh, gosh. Well, I include many in my book, so you can go take a look at Reimagine Inclusion. Oof. I'll say one of the worst probably that blew up was H&M's Coolest Monkey in the Jungle and that sweatshirt where they had a little black boy in that sweatshirt. And I will not get into the details of that, the racist content, but you can certainly Google it or look it up in Reimagined Inclusion.

I'm such a fan of Sephora, Allison. They take too much of my money, but I'm just impressed with everything they've done from being accused of a racist incident in store several years ago and their journey to build a much more inclusive store experience, get more black and brown founders on shelf, online, and then also really rallying their competitors to create really fair and equitable in-store experiences. So that's been amazing.

Allison: Your favorite children's book.

Mita: My favorite children's book. Well, my son and I finished the Harry Potter series. So I like to read with my children. A while ago, we finished that. So.

Allison: I love that. I just read the first one with my son. 

Okay, last hot take: If you had to pick just one chapter in your book as required reading for all company leaders, which one would you choose and why?

Mita: Hmm. Now you're asking me to pick between my children. Good lord. OK. You know what? I'm going to pick this one because it's a very subtle one that we don't talk a lot about. And I've been very surprised by the positive feedback I've gotten. Why are you asking for a raise? You and your husband make more than enough money. 

So that one is much more about subtle biases and the fact that white women and women of color do negotiate. We often are gaslit, dismissed and minimized when we do ask for more and know our worth. And so that's something that I think is much more subtle that we see show up in the workplace.

Allison: Great recommendation. Well, thank you so much for joining us. I loved the book. I encourage everyone to read it. It is so easy to digest in small pieces. If there are certain topics, you can find the chapter that you want. I absolutely loved it. So I am so glad that you came. Yeah, I'm so thrilled for you.

Mita: Thank you so much.

Allison: And we're excited to continue to follow your journey. And where can people find you and your book and your work if they want to follow along? You post amazing content on LinkedIn.

Mita: Yeah. So LinkedIn, primarily Instagram. The book, I'm really just delighted, is now Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller. It's on Amazon and you can find it in your independent bookstore today. Thank you so much, Allison.