Katie Couric’s throwback clip proves that progress on maternity leave is slow—but needed

"I think that times have changed so much, but I do think there's a lot of implicit bias against moms," Couric recently told USA TODAY. "I think it's important to make sure your employer is up on the times and that women aren't penalized, consciously or unconsciously when they have children."

Katie Couric’s throwback clip proves that progress on maternity leave is slow—but needed

Katie Couric is a trailblazer who has made media history while raising two daughters, and this week she's reminded the world that while a lot has changed since she was pregnant on the set of the Today Show back in 1991, some things, unfortunately, haven't.

In a recent edition of her newsletter, Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric, the former Today anchor shared an old clip from when she was pregnant with her oldest daughter and was about to go on maternity leave. Her former Today co-host, Bryant Gumbel, "didn't quite get it," Couric wrote, noting that "It's pretty shocking to watch it now, 28 years later!"

In the clip, Gumbel asks Couric why she's taking "so long" off work. She was planning to take nine weeks but ended up taking less than half of that.

Gumble gives Couric a hard time about her leave and Couric explains to Gumble that having a baby is a major shock to a woman's body and that humans need time to recover from birth. (Seriously, this woman was back to work at four weeks postpartum. Many moms are still bleeding at that point.)

The cringe-worthy clip has gone viral, and Couric has made it clear that she doesn't have hard feelings toward Gumble at all, but that she brought the old footage up to make a point.

"I think that times have changed so much, but I do think there's a lot of implicit bias against moms," Couric recently told USA TODAY. "I think it's important to make sure your employer is up on the times and that women aren't penalized, consciously or unconsciously when they have children."

The pressure to get back to work

Couric only ended up taking half of her maternity leave, and it's so easy to understand why. Her predecessor at the Today show, Deborah Norville, went on maternity leave and never came back. Couric, her substitute, was promoted to the role of permanent co-anchor. At the time, Norville said it was her decision, but in recent years she has said she felt her bosses didn't want her to come back.

All this happened in 1991, a few months before I would start first grade. Fast forward to 2014 and I was also the co-anchor of a (much, much smaller) local morning show. I wanted to start trying for a baby and frequently daydreamed about how I would look pregnant at the anchor desk, but even in my daydreams, I would cut my maternity leave short. To be clear, no one ever expressly told me that I would be replaced if I took a long maternity leave, but I knew it was a possibility. In the end I chose to leave my dream job because I didn't feel like it was compatible with my dream of motherhood.

This is not just a problem in television news. Last year Indeed surveyed 1,005 women working in tech and found a whopping 83% of those who had children said they felt pressure to return to work faster when they were out on parental leave. Just over a third said they were directly pressured by colleagues or managers, while 32% feared losing their jobs and 38% feared losing credibility or value in their workplace.

"Frankly, women are afraid they'll lose their jobs. We're worried we'll be forgotten while we're gone. Out of sight, out of mind," Kim Williams, director of experience design at Indeed said in a statement to Recode.

Another survey, the iCIMS Women in the Workforce report found 45% of office professionals believe taking parental leave would decrease their opportunities for promotion. And yet another recent survey, this one by Talking Talent, found that when employees have access to parental leave (which many American workers don't), women use only about 52% of the time they could.

Between a rock and a hard place

The results of another study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when it comes to taking maternity leave, women are "damned if she does and damned if she doesn't," as the study's co-author Madeline Heilman, professor of psychology at New York University, told TIME.

Take a longer maternity leave like Norville did and you're seen as uncommitted and less competent. Short change your mat leave like Couric did and your parenting is judged. "The sad truth is, women are really between a rock and a hard place when making this decision," Heilman told TIME.

Time for a change

It's been 28 years since Couric sat on that set and argued with Gumble about maternity leave and he asked her, "How many men get nine weeks off?"

Couric started to bring up the possibility of paternity leave, but unfortunately in the nearly 30 years since that awkward conversation happened not much has happened on that issue.

This is a huge problem because until men feel they are able to be both caregivers and valued employees, women won't be able to be both, either.

According to Teresa Hopke, the CEO of Talking Talent, while more and more workplaces are adopting parental leave policies, they're just not being used to their potential because parents fear being penalized for taking them. That's why women are only taking 52% of the leave they're entitled to at work, and why men take even less, about 32%.

Changing parental leave policies are a great start, but we need to change our culture, too, and Couric's throwback clip proves that.

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