Allyson Felix is the most decorated Olympian in track and field history, and even she hit a significant obstacle with her major sponsor when she decided to start a family.  Contract renewal talks broke down after the sponsor offered to pay 70 percent less than her previous salary due to pregnancy and would not agree to preventing further reductions for her performance in the months before and after childbirth. She terminated the contract with that sponsor. After giving birth to her daughter, Allyson announced a new sponsorship contract with Athleta, a women’s activewear label.

Athletes that want to start a family risk pay cuts from sponsors during pregnancy and after childbirth, but after public outcry from Allyson’s story and the stories of other high-profile athletes, some change is underway. For example, Nike announced a new maternity policy for all sponsored athletes in August, 2019.  The new contract guarantees athletes’ pay and bonuses for eight months before their due date and ten months after, for a total of 18 months. Other athletic brands like Burton, Altra, Nuun, and Brooks added maternity protections for sponsored athletes.

Walk a Mile in Women’s Shoes

Sports is one example of an industry with prevalent gender inequity. Another example is athletic shoes. Sneakers are often designed for men and by men (like some aspects of the corporate workplace, but that’s a blog for another day). Now Allyson is revolutionizing the world of women’s footwear by creating her own sneaker company, Saysh

Saysh shoes, designed to fit the distinct anatomy of a woman’s foot, are an alternative to the male-orientated sneaker brands that drive the sports world. For much of the 20th century, women weren’t allowed to participate in professional sports, and companies designed running and basketball shoes based on men’s feet.  The molds (called lasts) many companies use to create their shoes are based off a man’s foot.  Brands often use a smaller size for women but don’t consider the difference in women’s feet.  Research reveals fundamental anatomical differences in the build of women’s feet. Allyson designed Saysh shoes with this difference in mind.

The Takeaway

Protections during maternity aren’t limited to Olympians or athletes, for that matter.  Working women all over the U.S. deserve protection when they have children.  Nearly 30 percent of women without access to family PTO drop out of the workforce within a year after giving birth.  Retaining women in the workforce means including those who decide to have families by expanding family paid time off. Now is a great time to review your company’s family paid time off benefits and ensure that your policies and work culture offer structural and psychological safety for pregnant women and new mothers.

As an example, Intel expanded their Family PTO policy in 2020 to include 12 weeks of paid bonding leave for new parents, in addition to covering pregnancy leave as short-term disability for new mothers.  They also let new parents work a part-time schedule for up to four weeks with full-time pay, among other benefits.  Invite your workforce to bring their whole selves to work by reviewing your policies to ensure you are inclusive of those starting families.

One final note about Allyson – last week she and sponsor Athleta created a $200,000 fund to help cover the costs of child care for mothers who are athletes traveling to competitions.

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