Meena Harris on Parental Leave Policies: 'We Need to Urge Men to Take This Up As a Family Issue'

The lawyer, mom of two, and niece of VP Kamala Harris spoke about the challenges working mothers face during a virtual event with Elvie and HeyMama. Here are five key takeaways.

An image of Meena Harris on a colorful background.
Photo: Getty Images (1). Art: Jillian Sellers.

We live in a world where women, many of whom are parents, are disrupting the status quo to champion for equality. Meena Harris has been one of them.

The mom of two, lawyer, children's book author, and founder/CEO of the Phenomenal Woman action campaign, spoke about the challenges working mothers face and the glass ceiling during a virtual event on February 23. It was in partnership with Tania Boler, the founder of Elvie, a tech company selling the first silent wearable breast pump, and HeyMama, a social platform for working mothers.

Here are five highlights from the discussion.

Language is powerful.

Harris, author of Ambitious Girl, spoke about how impactful language can be. As someone whose worldview was guided by her family—all women doing exceptional things, of course including her aunt Vice President Kamala Harris—she learned through their positive example and aspires to apply the same parenting principles to her two girls.

"The word ambition or being ambitious is something [society] tells us we should hide or diminish or downplay. I had an interesting conversation with [television host and activist] Padma Lakshmi who said that she was taught to be ambitious, but not to show that she was ambitious," said Harris. "In becoming a parent and knowing that society would tell me and my girls those same messages, I thought, 'How do we start early in reclaiming and redefining those words on our own terms?"

Moms can do extraordinary things for activism.

We live in an overwhelming world peppered with many social and justice issues, but all of us can play a role in making a difference by choosing an issue we are passionate about and committing to it.

"Each of us can make a positive impact from wherever we are. You can make a more meaningful impact if you find whatever your personal passion and purpose and skillset is. It's about starting small and starting somewhere … looking in your kitchen, in your school, in your neighborhood, community garden, or place of worship. There are so many ways to engage," said Harris. "And my mantra is that no one can do everything but each of us can do something."

Is there a topic that angers or inspires you? Good. Entrepreneur Harris explained that we have a responsibility to learn everything we can about that matter—a task made easier by increased digital use. The more knowledge, the easier it is to support and promote advocacy.

Break into taboo conversations.

Boler and Harris discussed the ways in which the U.K. (where Boler resides) and the U.S. significantly differ in terms of paid parental leave policies. It is imperative to openly discuss these topics that impact women of all communities, such as advocating for worth in the workplace, negotiating salaries, requesting flexible work patterns, and minimizing the gender wage gap.

"The fact is that when we are talking about inequality (these are systemic issues); the people who don't have access to paid parental leave are the ones who need it most. Family and caregiving in general is largely performed by women. Without adequate time off and access to support, women are forced to step back or are pushed back, lowering their wages and contributing to a gender and racial wage gap," said Harris. "The pandemic on one hand has deepened these issues ... on the other hand, it has laid bare how much of a crisis we are in and how much we were in before this pandemic started. It's a moment to shake things up."

Men need to be present in this debate.

Imperfect parental leave policies and gender inequality are not just a woman's battle to bear. Boler and Harris said men and fathers have to engage in the fight, by changing attitudes in addition to policy. These moments of advocacy are also vital teaching moments for children to learn to speak up from an early age.

"Without the buy-in and allyship of men, who are equally impacted by this, are often the people who are making the decisions and control of these policies. We need to urge men to take this up as a family issue," said Harris.

The future is bright.

There is much to be optimistic and hopeful for despite these hardships, according to Harris.

"I am really inspired by the next generation and young people and young leaders. Take Gitanjali Rao, Time magazine's '2020 Kid of the Year,' who is a 15-year-old scientist, or [poet] Amanda Gorman sharing her creative voice that felt very healing. Gen Z especially makes me feel like we are in good hands and I am proud to be someone who follows their lead."

Pooja Shah is a freelance writer in New York City. For more of her work, visit her page.

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