What it takes for working moms to succeed in their careers
AIG’s Julia Ulrich is advocating for women and challenging myths about working moms.
When AIG Associate General Counsel Julia Ulrich returned from maternity leave in 2018, she was excited to get back to work. And she was also nervous. Julia was aware of potential misconceptions about working moms and how they can stall some women’s careers.
“I didn’t want anyone to think that I wasn’t as dedicated or as serious as I had been because I now had a baby to care for,” recalls Julia, whose son, Parker, is now 4 years old.
Ultimately, Julia had nothing to worry about. Upon returning from maternity leave, she was chosen by Michael Leahy, Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel & Head of Litigation, to play a key part of a corporate restructuring at AIG. Mike moved Julia and others into the Corporate Litigation department, where she began reporting to Eric Manne, Deputy General Counsel, General Insurance Litigation. “Mike and Eric never made me feel like anything less than the dedicated lawyer that I am,” says Julia. “I am extremely lucky to work for them.”
Since joining AIG in 2011, Julia has steadily risen through the ranks of the insurance organization, moving from in-house Errors & Omissions (E&O) counsel to Assistant Vice President, then Vice President in the Claims department to Associate General Counsel in the Corporate Litigation group. Julia manages a team of five Assistant General Counsels, and together they provide coverage advice and oversee complex and high-stakes domestic and international insurance coverage litigation filed by and against AIG member companies.
“I had a lot of support over the years,” Julia says. “I know a lot of women who weren’t as lucky.”
Be an ally. Proactively support colleagues around you.
At AIG, Julia has become an advocate for women – trying to mitigate the stigmas linked to working moms. In October 2021, she was appointed to a leadership position on the career development committee of the New York Women & Allies Employee Resource Group (ERG), where she will plan events focused on professional development. This is more important than ever, Julia adds, especially as a disproportionate share of women relative to men have left the global labor force amid the ongoing pandemic.
In late 2020, Julia and four AIG colleagues also gave a presentation, called “Crushed by COVID and the Many Hats We Wear,” to the company’s then-current Women’s Executive Leadership Initiative class.
Besides the telling statistics about women leaving the workforce, the presentation also highlighted that women were more likely than men to bear the brunt of increased childcare and household duties. Even now, as the world enters the third year of the pandemic, Julia is among the many working mothers she knows who still struggle to deal with sporadic school and classroom closures, quarantines, and other COVID-related limitations on childcare.
“My big takeaway was that women haven’t made nearly as much progress as we thought we had,” Julia says. “We still have a lot of work to do to achieve gender equity.”
Stay visible. Show your whole self.
No matter how hard moms work, their dedication can often get overlooked.
“I used to stay in the office very late most nights, and when I became a mom, I had to leave work by 5pm to pick up my son at daycare before it closed,” Julia recalls. “Some might have thought I stopped working as soon as I exited the door. I was actually working a second shift at home. But nobody saw that.”
So, Julia tries to stay visible by planning ahead to attend work-related networking events, and advocating for herself: “Don’t be afraid to highlight the value you added to the project or results,” Julia says. She also believes colleagues should be allies and do the same for others.
Staying visible also means showing up authentically. Julia is open and vocal about the fact that she has a second “job” at home. In the wake of the pandemic when many schools and daycares shut down, Julia recalls navigating conference calls from home while caring for her then 2-year-old son in the months she spent without childcare.
“If my boss called and my son was crying or screaming in the background, I didn’t panic or feel embarrassed,” Julia recalls. “I would simply get a handle on things and call him back in 10 minutes. He’s a parent, too, and he understands.” Likewise, Julia showed the same understanding to others.
Manage your career at home. Not just at work.
If mothers are going to have equal opportunities to succeed at work, having support at home is just as important.
Even before the start of the pandemic, studies suggest women were more likely than their spouses or partners to say they carried more of the parenting responsibilities. For example, in a 2019 survey* of U.S. adults with children younger than 18 years old, moms were more likely than dads (54% versus 44%, respectively) to say there were times where they needed to work fewer hours to balance work and parenting duties.
What’s more, the survey revealed, mothers were also more likely than fathers to say being a working parent makes it more difficult for them to advance at work.
“We’re taught to advocate for more money, bigger titles, and bigger jobs at work,” Julia says. “Sometimes creating opportunities for the future of your career means advocating for yourself at home and asking others for help.”
While Julia has advanced in her decade-long career at AIG, she’s had no qualms about seeking the support of her husband, Albert. If Julia is away for a conference, attends an evening event, or just needs to work late, Albert steps in. The key, she says, is letting go: “At both home and work, it’s easy to feel like it will all fall apart if you’re not there. It won’t.”
Julia adds: The stigmas against working mothers are very real. While flexibility is important, it’s equally important not to judge mothers who need some flexibility.
“Never underestimate a woman, and definitely never underestimate a mother.”
*Despite challenges at home and work, most working moms and dads say being employed is what’s best for them, Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 12, 2019) https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/12/despite-challenges-at-home-and-work-most-working-moms-and-dads-say-being-employed-is-whats-best-for-them/