As the founder and former CEO of Girls Who Code, you've been an advocate for female economic empowerment for more than a decade. You've now written a manifesto for working mothers, a group disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women, as you put it at the start of your book, are "burned out, exhausted, depressed, enraged, and at a breaking point."
Reshma Saujani, founder, Girls Who Code, and author, "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (And Why It's Different Than You Think)": Women are in crisis. One out of three women is considering leaving her job, and 51% of women say that they're anxious and depressed. It's never been a worse time to be a working woman. But we don't have to waste a good crisis. We have the opportunity to rebuild workplaces that were never, ever built for us. I wanted to write this book to say now's the time, we're not going back to the old system.
You've chosen to tell the story of this crisis in very personal terms.
I started the pandemic with a newborn baby. I was running Girls Who Code, we had a Super Bowl ad, I was on top of the world. Then the pandemic hit and I went back to work when my son was a few weeks old — I had to save my non-profit. My entire leadership team were mothers of young children and all of us were saying to ourselves, just hold on, hold on until September, everything will be okay.
But schools didn't open. You saw millions of women get pushed out of the workforce, because they could not literally do two-and-a-half jobs anymore. There was no plan; now, two years later, still no one has a plan. We haven't passed the Build Back Better legislation in Congress. Employers today are saying, "Come back to work five days a week." Half the daycare centres are shut down. So you wonder why women are feeling extreme burnout? I'm not expecting a thank you, but I am expecting some help.
What happened to the idea of leaning in, of women determining their success, having it all, grabbing a seat at the table?
I spent the past 10 years telling girls to storm the corporate boardroom, to girl-boss their way to the top, to lean in and take that express train to the corner office. What we've realised is that having it all is just a euphemism for doing it all. And it didn't matter how many leadership courses you took, how many mentors you had, how much you leaned in, you were never going to get there, because until we get to equality in the home, you're never gonna get to equality in the workplace.
You have companies like Goldman Sachs celebrating women's month, having people come in and talk about how to colour code your calendar, how to get a mentor or a sponsor, how to raise your hand and speak up in meetings. The reality is they should be having talks on how to get men to do the laundry and do more care-taking. We need corporate policies like paid leave. Corporations play a huge role in creating gender inequality at home.
The concerns you describe are even greater for mothers who are not in corporate jobs.
We've always told working women that childcare is their problem. We don't have affordable structures of care. We don't provide support because we don't recognize that three out of ten families are run by single mothers who don't have another partner to rely on. That's wrong. Then we ask ourselves, why do we have the lowest birth rate in decades? It's because young women look at us and say, no thank you.
So let's talk about some of the solutions. You've advocated for a Marshall Plan for Moms, which suggests a strong view of the role of government. But of course, Congress has not pushed through legislation to provide working women with paid leave. Given that paralysis, what can we really expect from the government?
Nothing. But I wrote this book because we have got to start demanding. We have a unique opportunity with the Great Resignation to actually get what we should have been getting from the government and from our employers. So we're mobilising women to say, I can't come back to work unless I have affordable childcare. Right now less than 11% of companies provide some sort of childcare benefits. We can change that.
On paid leave, if we're going to get gender equality in the workforce, you can't continue to have companies that tout their paid leave programs, but don't tell you who's actually taking it. The vast majority of American dads take less than 10 days off after they have a child. We need gender neutral paid leave, and we need to increase the uptake. Tie executive performance reviews to how well they implemented paid leave policies. How many men took it? For how long? We need to know how companies are doing to reduce gender inequality at home.
The third thing is mental health. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released a study recently saying that there were two subgroups that were experiencing severe anxiety and depression: 18-to-24-year-olds, and mothers. We cannot continue to expect that mothers just show up and show up and show up, with no support. Office time is still a signal of your productivity and your commitment to your job. So women are quitting and, you know, the cost of attrition to companies is more expensive than providing childcare.
The corporate self-interest argument is a powerful one — support women or face the cost of attrition and lost talent — why are we not hearing that more?
We've tried different ways of getting around this issue, arguing it's the right thing to do. But I think we have to speak the language of companies. It just makes financial sense. It's cheaper for you to provide or support childcare than deal with losing people. We know that when you provide childcare, it creates loyalty and commitment and people are more likely to stay with companies. The same thing with paid leave — and it's good for men too. We know that when men actually participate in taking care of their children, they have less diabetes, fewer heart attacks, they are happier, they live longer.
I think CEOs are talking about this. I think they're getting it. And it's time now for not just moms, but all of us to demand it. It's interesting to me, how many men I talk to who work in financial services or work in the legal profession, who don't want to go back to the office five days a week. They want to walk their kids to school. They want to make dinner.
The rise of environmental, social and governance concerns can help accelerate some of this change, but it also means considering metrics. What should investors look for and demand from the companies they invest in, when it comes to gender and family policies?
I think that we have to demand clarity. I'll give you an example. If you look at studies on paid leave, some studies will say, well, 85% of companies offer paid leave. But that's because some of those surveys are asking companies whether they offer paid leave, yes or no. But we need to know more. How many weeks? Who takes it? Do you penalise people when they do?
When I was [starting out], I was reluctant to ask companies about their policies about maternity and paternity leave. It was like an indication that you weren't committed to your job. But now employees can say that we will only come work for you if you are the kind of company that prioritises mental health, that ties performance reviews to men taking paid leave, that celebrates flexibility. And that doesn't just offer it for some but mandates that people actually take it.
What would progress look like inside companies?
I want every company to have a women's jobs czar. A lot of CEOs say to me, well, you know, we've gotten a lot of women back. No, no, no. You've gotten women back, but mothers are still missing from the workforce. Any form of childcare support — whether that's backup care, cash subsidies, or in-home daycare — lowers your company's attrition rate.
You're very clear about the need to be transparent on paid leave and benefits, but what about the gender pay gap?
The pay gap has always been between mothers and fathers, you know, not between childless women and childless men. We could get rid of the pay gap if we commit to stop penalising women when they exit and enter the workforce.
There are also AI solutions to help, companies that can come in and do your data analysis, tell you where the gaps are, create transparency, and then monitor it. All of this is very, very possible.
A lot of mothers will read your book. What is your word of advice to them? What can mothers do for themselves?
Sleep. You can't be brave if you're tired, and we're all so exhausted. We can't let them make us so exhausted that we're not able to fight.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and is published by special syndication arrangement.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a columnist and member of the editorial board covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.