Chinmayi Bhavanishankar on Speaking Up to Pave the Way for Others

10 Minute Read

Can you start by introducing yourself and maybe telling us about your career, your family, and what you're passionate about?

My name is Chinmayi Bhavanishankar. I am an immigrant from India to the US. I moved here when I was a little over 17, and I got into tech right out of college. I was in consulting for a while and then did my MBA from Carnegie Mellon, then moved over to Seattle and joined Microsoft, which is where I've been for the past few years. I have two dogs, a partner, and now a one-year-old. 

I am very passionate about equity in the workplace, specifically gender and racial equity. My partner actually works in that space full-time for a nonprofit. So, we have a lot of conversations around that at the dinner table regularly. I'm also a yoga instructor. I am passionate about women's health specifically. I'm a dancer. I love photography. I love to get my creative juices flowing, which is how I ended up in marketing in tech, which you don't see a lot of Indian people in. 

What stage of your career were you in when you found out you were pregnant? How did you navigate that and your career?

I would say mid-level, which is where I still am. When I found out I was pregnant, I did not hesitate to tell my boss, but I didn't want to tell my peers immediately. 

I didn't know why at the time. Essentially, we're all told when we get pregnant that the first three months are really hard, and things can go wrong. Don't tell everyone, don't celebrate—you don't know what's gonna happen. Then you can tell people after 12 weeks. That's the notion that I was indoctrinated into.

I was talking to my partner about that, and he shared that it doesn't make any sense to him. “Don't you want to be supported if things go south? Don't you want people to be available for you?” I didn't think about it that way at all. It was more about how painful it would be to tell people that something didn't go well. But I didn't think about the support that I would need and the support I would get because all these people are people I trust.

So, that kind of got me thinking about looking at pregnancy and motherhood in the workplace differently.

I've never thought about how weird it is that we keep that so close to our chest. And that's the norm, I would say. 

Yeah, it absolutely is. It's also physically the most brutal for most people. The first three months are really hard. I had a friend who was a medical resident at the time, and she didn't tell her boss. She would be nauseous, she'd be tired, and she would still have to work long hours. Then, after she told them, they were offering her help and support, at which point she felt fine. 

She needed the most support in that first period. So that's interesting, right? That's when you probably are at your worst physically, and it's crazy that we are expected to suffer through it as though things are normal.

I ended up writing that article on LinkedIn about being pregnant and miserable. And you know, there were so many comments from my coworkers - “I was sitting next to the toilet, barfing, and taking a call, but no one on the call knew”. As I was listening to these stories, I realized I worked with a lot of them when they were pregnant, and I had no idea. So it's the wrong expectation. We do that to ourselves because we don't question it. 

By speaking up, you're also empowering someone else to speak up. So if I'm in mid-career and I have someone who's early in career, who's not even pregnant, but who's watching, it's empowering for them to be able to see someone really be vocal about it and take the time that she needs. 

So, when did you tell your peers at work?

It was about, gosh, 12 weeks after the first ultrasound. I don't know, the timeline is so blurred. But I definitely waited in spite of having had these conversations. I definitely waited, and I was miserable my entire pregnancy. I was nauseous the entire time. At some point, you don't want to complain anymore. 

But then I realized it's not complaining as much as it's letting others know where you're at. That shifts everyone's perception of how you're going about your day. If you are impatient or more quiet or if you aren’t yourself, they know why. It's nice to be vulnerable and to be open about that. I used to think about that as complaining and whining, but I don't think that is true.

It does help the people around us to at least have context for what's really going on.

Right. Because there is a change—as much as we try to cover it up. If we bring our authentic selves to work, then there's absolutely a change. We tend to cover, we tend to perform, and by we, I mean women in general, but if you're even the least bit true to yourself at work, then it shows that something is off.

You're obviously passionate about talking about the struggles of motherhood, especially being a working parent. You’ve written several LinkedIn posts about it. It's wonderful and beautiful. Why do you think it's so important that we all talk about the struggles?

It's important to talk about both sides of such a big life change, as a parent in general, but especially as a mother. Societal norms and expectations of a mother are difficult.

Expectations, specifically of biological mothers, are stereotypical. I am addressing that stereotype. The expectation from a mother is very much to say things such as, "Motherhood is amazing. It's full of love. It brings us so much joy and gives us a purpose in life.” That is our goal in life. 

But no one talks about everything else that comes with it, the other side of it. Not just the nausea, but the change in identity that happens, even once you get pregnant and after you have a baby and then the rest of your life.

They prep you for the birth, but then what? 

Now I'm left with this baby that I have to look after for 18 years, which is crazy in my head. I don't know if everyone else goes through this existential crisis. I don't know if that's because I had my baby late, but there is a lot that comes with it. 

You work so hard, especially if you're a working mom, to build your career, to build your identity. Then everything shatters, and you almost have to rebuild it. But you don't have enough time to do that rebuilding because, guess what, you have to be back at work, depending on which state you're in, in the US, because you don't have enough maternity leave.


So we need to talk about that. Even though we work in tech, and we probably get a lot more than our non-tech counterparts, it is not enough. Our hormones are off at least until 18 months after. I understand that businesses (built for this patriarchal society) don't work that way, but we need to acknowledge that this is still not enough. 

I mean, if men were to have babies, we would have two years off. We need to keep talking about that. We need to keep asking for more because just because it's more than what it was before doesn't make it enough.

I love how you mentioned the identity shift. I think that's one thing that for so long I thought that was just me, you know? And the more people I talk to, I realize that happens to everyone. And we don't talk about it enough, for sure.

No, and everyone has a different time period of learning to cope with that identity shift. Just because we've been through it and we coped with it in a certain time frame doesn't mean the other person will. It's so subjective. That's why women are forced to get out of the workplace, too. 

If they are that attached and they're still figuring out what their identity is outside of their baby, you can't do everything at once, and you're forced to step out of the workplace to then look at what's happening with you, really bond with your baby, and then maybe try to come back, and that has hurdles of its own. Women shouldn't have to make that choice.

So, how do you approach advocating for yourself and others in the workplace?

I had and still do have a lot of support from other working moms. 

There are plenty of enterprise resource groups at Microsoft and one at Microsoft advertising, which they call “returnity.” There's a “returnity” program where you have a mentor who's kind of had a kid or two that can walk you through coming back and just be someone to talk to one-on-one. We have a group chat where we literally ask any question from “How do we move a kid to sippy cups?” to “What do you do when you have hand, foot, and mouth?” to “How do we get rated for our performance after maternity leave?” and things like that, because if you're a first-time mom—and even if you aren't—there are so many of these things that can make you go into this internet rabbit hole where everything leads to the worst possible outcome. 

Or you can talk to other moms who have been through this before and who can talk you off the ledge in a sense. You’ll have someone to sympathize with the fact that it's not easy, and you’ll have someone to go to. That community makes a whole world of difference. 

What’s different about how you view your career and how you relate to the workplace now?

The term " leader " has been used very loosely recently because everyone wants to be a leader, and that’s great, but there are leaders, and there are followers, and if there are no followers, not everyone can be a leader.

There's nothing wrong with being a follower, right? Here’s something one of my managers, my mentor at the time, told me when I was having an existential crisis after coming back to I was so worried—what do I do with my career? Do I keep going full steam ahead, and at what cost? She said, “You know, you don't need to keep climbing all the time.”

Which was a big relief in my head because that was the expectation I had of myself. That’s not to take that away from women who do want to keep climbing, even after becoming mothers, and a lot of people are discriminated against because they're mothers, so that's a whole other story, but there is also value in saying it's okay to do what you want to do. 

When you open yourself up to a broader community, you see all these different avenues and possibilities. Advocating for yourself in the workplace starts by talking to others. Talk to your team who are not mothers or who have been through parenthood but it's been a long time.

You tend to forget, and life as a new mom is very different from life as a mom of a teen. It's still hard, but different kinds of hard. You tend to forget how hard it was. I've had to remind some of my teammates that I haven't slept in three weeks, you know? That's a very different thing.

In your opinion, what changes would you like to see with how well mothers are supported in the workplace in general? Do you have any ideas for what would make things better?

We have this at Microsoft, or this was a new benefit that’s offered, where new moms have telehealth support for one year for all things pregnancy-and-postpartum-related. It includes a therapist, pediatrician, gynecologist, physical therapist, sleep coach, and nutritionist. You have a few hours on your docket, and you have access to almost everyone. 

I understand that not every company can afford that, but something like that where you get therapy, or you get to choose from one of those resources for the year or the year and a half—even the year wasn't enough. I remember I loved my therapist from that service, and I couldn't continue with them outside of that one year. I believe that it's not enough. I had to go out and find someone else, but that continuity of having that support system for that year or year and a half is important. 

Is there anything we didn't hit that you want to make sure moms know?

The only thing I would say is that, for any moms out there, really talk about your kids at your workplace. Bring your entire self, and do not leave your family out. 

We have kid pickups, drop-offs, sickness, and everything that we have to deal with for a long time. As parents and as moms, we have to keep talking about it, so then you're making way for someone else to do the same. For the longest time, I was so focused on myself and how I was presenting myself that I didn't realize that someone’s always watching and listening to what I say and do.

There's a possibility of that influence that we have to be mindful of. It's the same with kids, right? So how we bring ourselves at work, especially when we're working from home, they're watching and listening too.

Oh, that is such a good point. And one that I needed to hear. It just made me realize that today, my kid's school pickup time changed, and I emailed someone I was working with and said, “Hey, I had a conflict come up that I can't change.” Because I didn't want to say,  “I have to go pick up my kid.” And I didn't realize that that's why I presented myself that way until just now when you said that.

Yeah. We cover. We've gotten so good at it that we don't even notice it. Why do we not specify that? I'm just going home because I didn't sleep well last night. I'm just going home because I need to pick up my kid or I want to spend more time with my kid. All of those are valid reasons. 

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