Riccarda Zezza

Ashoka Fellow
Milan, MI, Italy, Europe
Fellow Since 2016


This profile was prepared when Riccarda Zezza was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.
The New Idea
Riccarda believes that work-life balance should radically be redefined, so parents can stop seeing their time off work spent with their children in conflict with their careers. To reach this objective, she works with employers, particularly in the corporate world helping them to stop seeing maternity leave and parental care as a burden, but as a time for developing key skills that are useful for personal as well as professional development. Riccarda refers to this concept as MaaM, Maternity as a Master(s).

After working in the corporate world for almost 20 years, Riccarda realized that while time off towards a Master’s degree is encouraged and even financially supported by companies, time off towards maternity leave is largely viewed negatively. When executives return from a Master’s program, they tend to be treated with more respect, involved in decision-making and strategic planning and are often promoted to more senior roles. Conversely, when women take time off work for a similarly lengthy period of time (maternity leave), they are considered distracted, less committed and are often relegated to simpler and more “feminine” departments, such as human resources or administration, upon their return.

It was also apparent to Riccarda that although she had participated in multiple corporate trainings, she had learnt a lot more during her two maternity leaves. Maternity leave had accelerated her acquisition of relationship skills, such as empathy, the ability to listen, to notice the slightest changes, and to motivate others. She also acquired organizational competences, such as multitasking, managing time more effectively, and continuously having to determine priorities and deliver promptly on them. Most importantly, she had also learnt to develop a vision for the future, to envision the long-term development of a child (and of herself and the family) and to plan accordingly to reach those goals. As she discussed these findings with other young mothers, she realized that this was a shared experience. She became determined to show that maternity (and also paternity) should be understood as a moment of learning and growth, with benefits that should be understood and welcomed by employers. She refers to the “meta-competence” that skills have to transfer from one role to the other as “transilience” (a mix of transition and resilience) to describe the fluid interplay between skills learnt at work and transferred to family life and vice versa.

With this basic premise in mind, there are two key areas of Riccarda’s work: the first, Piano C, focuses on spaces for mothers to actively cultivate skills development while on maternity leave or shortly after; and the second, a program that directly addresses a shift in perception of the paternal leave period within corporate culture.

Piano C (Plan C- an alternative between Plan A, a career and Plan B, a family) is a co-working space for mothers in Milan in which women gather, share their experiences, work on new projects and train each other on new skills during their maternity leave and afterwards. Critical to the success of Piano C is a kindergarten, allowing women to alternate between work and childcare at each individual’s time and speed. Piano C also offers young women a support in their entrepreneurial ideas providing consulting and mentoring. The model has been replicated in many Italian cities, through the open-source model of replication preferred by Riccarda.

At the same time Riccarda has begun a program for and within the corporate world. She works with human resources departments and with corporate executives to redefine maternity as a period of intense and valuable learning (much like a Master’s) and to change corporate attitudes towards it. She has also created a digital tool, Maam U, which helps mothers to better reflect on their learning while on maternity leave and to connect them with other mothers in the same situation. Riccarda begins her work by convincing the corporate world to change their thinking behind parental leave. Women who have a positive and less isolated maternity leave will be assets for the company, enjoying better morale and higher productivity. Riccarda thinks long-term about these relationships with companies -this is not simply a case-by-case utilitarian approach but rather an effort to radically change the corporate world by making work and life balance a new norm. Children will then be able to enjoy the time and attention of both their parents, and parents will enjoy learning from their children.

In line with these goals, Riccarda is also working towards a clearer strategy around redefining the balance between men and women when it comes to parenting and work-life balance. Riccarda believes that once MaaM is embedded in corporate culture, men will be sent home to practice those managerial “soft skills” that they currently train employees on through artificial life experiences done at professional trainings (survival courses, flight simulators, etc). Despite gains in gender equality, women continue to share a bigger burden of domestic work and childcare than fathers with great implications on career opportunities. When Spain elected Zapatero as a prime minister in 2004, one of the first governments to have an equal number of male and female ministers, it was sadly observed that only four of the nine female ministers had children. Women can increasingly make it to the top in politics or business, but that is still a lot easier when they don’t have children. By working with corporations, among the largest employers, to redefine maternity leave- combined with the use of technology that allows for working from a distance- the potential for this to ease the choice between career and kids is enormous. This will also necessitate a reconsideration of the role of paternity leave. Riccarda thinks that most men would welcome a longer paternity break (men often stand up during her workshops and say “I wish I had the time to take a Master’s in paternity”), if the system allowed for it and if their employers would not automatically expect mother to detach from work and father to cling on it. Riccarda is beginning to include men, both in her co-working space (phasing in fathers, currently representing only 10% of members of Piano C) and in her parental programs. This has also the potential to change the welfare system. If mothers and fathers were both pushing for a more equitable share of the duties, pleasure and learning that comes with caring for a child, a change in legislation will be more likely.

MaaM is already been replicated and it could easily spread around Europe and beyond. As Riccarda approaches multinational companies, it will become increasingly easier for her methodology to spread to other countries. The perceived conflict between career and parenthood is found in virtually all countries and the solution can quickly be applied internationally.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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