Kate Deringer Sallie was due to have her first baby. It was about 10 years ago and she was working for a law firm that did not have a maternity leave policy.
“This is ridiculous,” Deringer Sallie thought at the time. She was the family breadwinner. Her husband was in school. The firm needed a policy.
She researched what the competition was offering, did her own digging, and compiled a maternity leave proposal to present to the firm’s executive team.
Just weeks before having her baby, the chairman of the committee reviewed her leave proposal in a one-on-one meeting. There was pushback, he said, and it was primarily coming from a woman on the executive team.
Her reasoning, Deringer Sallie remembers being told, she had had a baby too, without the benefit of company policy. These were the sacrifices that you need to make as a woman.
“I said to the executive chair, ‘You have five kids, right? Your wife stays at home? Imagine if you had to stop your salary for 12 weeks,’” Deringer Sallie said. “He kind of stopped and looked at me and said, ‘I’ll get back to you tomorrow.’”
They approved her proposal.
It was a victory, but more importantly, it was a watershed moment for Deringer Sallie.
It’s the right thing to do
It wasn’t about the 12 weeks of maternity leave or the belief that Deringer Sallie was getting a pass when other women had to struggle — a sacrifice, as it’s often called. This fight was about making it right, setting up a new normal for women, one that doesn’t involve such struggle.
Sallie said the executive who pushed back on the proposal is a good woman and “has a great career. I don’t think she should have had to sacrifice to get where she is.”
“This is not what this is about,” she said. “It’s not just for me, it’s because this is right.”
And speaking of the word “sacrifices,” don’t call them that.
“Whatever career you choose, you make choices,” Deringer Sallie said.
Kentucky-born, but midstate is her home
Deringer Sallie was the oldest of four children, born in Kentucky. She moved to Carlisle at age 7 because of her father’s job.
After attending James Madison University and Dickinson Law, her first job drew Deringer Sallie away from the area. She had offers in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but ultimately chose Delaware because of its proximity to city life, but not living in the thick of it.
She started in Wilmington specializing in bankruptcy law.
“Everybody incorporates there, not so much for the taxes but the efficiency and the knowledge of the courts,” Deringer Sallie said. “The judges are super efficient. The judges understand the law very well, it’s an extremely collegial bar.”
If her peers were concerned she wouldn’t keep up with others during the year she took her first maternity leave, her work spoke volumes, literally.
“Our minimum billable for associates was 1,800 for the year. I billed 2,000 in nine months,” she said.
But it’s not about that, Deringer Sallie said. She knew she could do the work, even excel at it.
Her focus was to change the dialogue, to change the path that women traditionally had to take to be considered successful in their careers. Experiencing the same struggles as other women is not a prerequisite for success.
That’s hard sometimes, Deringer Sallie admits, to look beyond your struggles and your own experiences, to understand that’s not the way to help people move forward.
“I really have to remind myself, I don’t want to continue that,” she said. “The idea that I went through it and you won’t understand or appreciate what you have unless you go through it. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that makes us stronger.”
As leaders we have a responsibility
In 2008 she joined Rhoads & Sinon LLP in Harrisburg and is now a partner.
The move back to the area helped her be closer to home.
“I married a local boy, we went to the same high school,” she said. Deringer Sallie and her husband, Greg, have three boys now, Aiden, 9; Landon, 6; and Parker, 1.
As partner, Deringer Sallie uses her influence to help other women leaders. Her ultimate goal is to get other women leaders to sit next to her in the board room.
“We do have a responsibility to use that position that we have,” she said. “They don’t need to fight the same battles that I fought.”
‘We talk about breaking the glass ceiling and all of that. Wouldn’t it be great if these women could come through unscathed? That there is no glass to break? That they could come through without having that burden?” she said. “That narrative does not change unless we are at the table showing it, proving it and talking about it.”
“I choose to make things better”
Deringer Sallie recently reaped some of those rewards.
She read an article about a former co-worker who was doing well in both career and family life. The co-worker told Deringer Sallie that she made the difference, that she helped forge her way here with the maternity policy and there is a way to make these two things — life and career — work together.
“It’s those invisible strings. Just by showing that you can make it to the next step,” Deringer Sallie said. “You could still do it, you could have the family and do the career you want. That’s it. That’s what I want.”
In an email to Deringer Sallie, the former co-worker wrote:
“You were the author of my fate here (aka the maternity leave policy) and set the stage for prioritizing family and happiness,” she wrote.
“That to me is success,” Deringer Sallie said. “Legacy wasn’t about my success, it’s that I choose to make things better for women coming behind me.”