'Running a Marathon at a Sprint Pace': Sustainability Expert Talks Parenting Through the Pandemic
Natasha Lamb is Managing Partner and Director of Equity Research & Shareholder Engagement at Arjuna Capital, a sustainable investment firm she co-owns. She is also mother to two young sons.
Read S&P Global and AARP's research, "Something's Gotta Give".
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
S&P Global: So Natasha, S&P Global has been doing research into how parental care responsibilities and family care responsibilities impact women's career trajectories. I always enjoy talking to you about environmental, social, and governance topics and the work Arjuna is doing. But I thought of you in particular for this project because of our last conversation, which, as you might recall, took place a few months into the pandemic. When I called you, you were juggling questions from your kids while also doing an interview with me, and I just so strongly related to that balancing act between family and career responsibilities.
So I wanted to start just asking about your personal experience. How are you juggling this high-power career with also family responsibilities? What does that look like?
Natasha Lamb: So first and foremost, I feel incredibly lucky and privileged because I own my own business along with two partners, I have full flexibility in terms of the timing of my work, my office is in the same town that I live in. I designed that intentionally because of having children after having a three-hour commute into the city in the early days [of my career]. For so many people, this has been incredibly difficult. And then I look at my own situation and I think: I'm so lucky—and, this is incredibly difficult.
So I think everything is relative. I had the benefit of really thinking about work-life balance going into the pandemic and having laid the groundwork for that after having really experienced what it's like not to have flexibility over your schedule and where you physically are. It was the motivator for starting my own company.
And right now, even with support and flexibility, the situation for working parents is incredibly difficult. My husband also works in investing and has flexibility, we're able to split our day. He goes into the office in the morning and I'm with the kids. And in the afternoon, I go into the office and he’s with the kids. So we’re working these compressed hours, which kind of feel like a sprint. I had a call from a client where I was at home and locked myself in the bathroom so I could talk with them so as not to be interrupted.
I have calls that I can't control what the timing is. And I have to make space for that. But what I really tried to do during this time is not apologize for the fact that I'm a mother. I think we're all benefiting from a greater amount of empathy. And just understanding that we're all humans, that it's not just women who have babies and children.
When people are like, oh, well, I can only meet in the morning…I'll go back and say: ‘Well, I’m with my boys in the morning, so can we find another time?’
So have you found people you're working with are pretty understanding when you express that?
Yes, I think so. And I think I haven't gotten any pushback from a work standpoint. A pandemic is like running a marathon at a sprint pace. That's what it felt like. I've been able to maintain my work. And right now, I'm in the process of [asking myself]: what can I pull back on? Because what's coming up again, which happened for the last three and a half months of the school year is home schooling. And that is like literally a nightmare.
Yes. I'm right there at you. I'm facing down trying to do school for a five- and a seven-year-old at the same time from home for at least nine weeks.
It's so stressful. And I have a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old who has some special needs and trying to teach them both together…it's so challenging to take that on and spend a morning trying to motivate your kids in at home to do their work.
The schooling falls disproportionately on me as the mother and that is a story that is shared, I think, in a lot of households. And my husband and I are trying to think creatively about how we do that better and how we can better balance the scale, but it's tough.
[Arjuna Capital Managing Partner and Director of Equity Research & Shareholder Engagement Natasha Lamb with her husband and sons. Source: Natasha Lamb]
You mentioned you’re looking for areas where you can pull back. What do you think the impact of this pandemic is going to be on women's advancement in the workforce, getting women in senior leadership roles, closing the gender pay gap?
I think it's going to be a disaster. Just talking a few days ago with a friend who was running a foundation, and she doesn't want to quit her job, but they're in a house, they're living with a nanny, there's not enough space. And it was just clear because everybody's home all the time that the nanny situation was not working out. And so she's decided to leave her really high-powered job as an executive director of this prestigious foundation.
She's trying to be creative and say: Okay, well, what can I do next during this time? Should I be getting a certification? Should I be getting more education and really think about what's on the other end of the pandemic? But there's no question that she's not alone. So many women are having to make hard decisions.
I'm balancing it. I'm unapologetic. I'm exhausted, but I'm in a privileged position. And I think so many women are in a more difficult spot.
I do think that there's greater flexibility, obviously. There's necessary flexibility. But what do you do if you have a full-time job and full-time childcare? What if you're a single mom? What if your partner has to work full-time or their job is at risk?
Because there is a gender pay gap, so often in a couple situation, the one with the higher-paying job is going to stay working. And it's the women that are going to pull back, go to part-time, or stop working completely. And it's not a good thing.
Has this topic come up with any of Arjuna’s portfolio companies?
We've had a lot of conversations about issues like parental leave and having the same benefits for men as there are for women to try to help fix that imbalance and how much pressure falls on to women when couples have babies. And so we've worked with companies on that.
I think the work that is most relevant right now is the work on the gender and racial pay gap. We've worked extensively with our portfolio companies to audit that issue and make sure that if you're in a similar role, you're making the same, whether you're a woman or man or a minority or a non-minority in this country. And that's something that companies are starting to get religion on.
But the bigger issue is the structural bias, whether it's gender bias or racial bias, in terms of who's holding the high-paying jobs. That's what over the last two years we've really been engaging our portfolio companies on because there needs to be transparency as to what those gender pay gaps are.
In order to address that [pay gap], it's going to take honesty, and it's going to take time to create more diverse organizations throughout the range, not just hiring women or people of color into lower-paying jobs. And that gets exactly to the point that if you have a couple situation and one of you need to quit your job to take care of the children, it's usually going to be the woman and that's a big problem.
I think it's become more of the norm and more of best practice that companies look at it not just as maternal leave, but as family leave, whether it's a man or a woman or someone who's adopted, and that does relieve some of the pressure.
Lamb said universal preschool is one way to help begin addressing these issues.
And that's something that's being called for right now by politicians in this country. Not having universal preschool is super detrimental to women. And again, I find myself in a privileged position: I work in investing, I make a decent amount of money. When I was having babies I could afford preschool, and it was REALLY expensive. It’s like sending a kid to college. I couldn't wait until the kids went to public school. And as an investment manager, looking at wealth gaps, when you have to pay for that and you're not in the 1%, that affects your long-term well in a very remarkable way.
I think universal preschool because otherwise, honestly, women don't have the choice if they're barely making more going into the workforce than they're paying for the childcare, and we're not paying enough for childcare anyway. Those workers that are so essential and important, and we've been talking about essential workers. They're not paid enough.
That's something that needs to be addressed at a federal level and will hopefully be an outcome of not just the political winds, but this pandemic, where we see the cracks in the system, where they’re just so more fully exposed, and hopefully, there's more empathy to try to understand them and to close them.
S&P Global partnered with AARP for this project to look at policies around caregiving responsibilities for elderly relatives as well as for children. What kind of progress or change have you seen over the past couple of years when it comes to the family care leave policies?
I look at my mother, who is an attorney, and she is able to work from her office in her home, and she's caring for my 94-year-old grandmother, who over the last year had a big health scare and is experiencing some dementia, and she needs to be able to take care of her full time. My mom got COVID and was the only one really able to take care of my grandmother at the time, and so took all these precautions. And luckily, my grandmother didn't get sick. But what do you do in a tenuous situation like that?
Luckily she got better after a couple of weeks and everything was okay, but she's not able to go away, and she's got to balance that with working. It's a privilege to be able to take care of our family—but it is a psychological weight that you carry as well. And I think thinking about the mental health of folks through this pandemic and these times is also really important.
I think most of all, it’s just taking this time as a kind of case study in resilience, right? We can look at the cracks in the system. We can look at how the most vulnerable among us are impacted, how women are impacted, how people of color have been impacted, and really take these lessons to heart and think about how to redesign a system of work that works for human beings.
We've got much more flexibility, much more technology, much more equity than we had 100 years ago. But it's not perfect. We're living in an imperfect system. We need to recognize where the inequalities are, how things fall more heavily on women in the household, and how, as employers, we can accommodate for the realities of life and our workers and really create a humanistic workplace culture and structure that allows people to do their best work, manage their energy, feel supported in the lives that they're leading at home. Because there's not your work life and your family life—there's just your life. And if you're putting them into two separate buckets, I think we're all doing a disservice to ourselves.