The Tech Company With The Radical Idea That Having A Baby Shouldn't Derail Your Career

The woman at the helm of an Oregon tech company has instituted unheard of family-friendly policies including baby-wearing in the office.

At Eugene, Oregon-based Palo Alto Software, a company that develops business planning and other business-focused software, every day is Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. CEO Sabrina Parsons, who has led the company since 2007, is a staunch advocate of family-friendly policies and is trying to help her employees and others in the tech sector deal with the fact that people have babies. Taking care of them shouldn’t derail your career.

Parsons says that the juggling work and parenting is tough for all parents, but the physical and societal demands placed on women hold particular challenges. From getting pregnant and giving birth to the disparity in many caregiving situations, she says parenting puts women’s careers at risk more than men’s.

“You’re in the prime of your career with all of this experience, when you get mommy-tracked. They get ‘concerned’ that you can’t do your job. That’s a huge reason why we’re not seeing women in leadership roles across Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies and in politics,” she says.

Where work and parenting collide

So, Parsons—the mother of three boys ages 10, 7, and 4—is trying to show them how it’s done. At her 55-person tech firm, which was founded by her father, employees enjoy family-friendly policies including flex time and an environment that welcomes children. Parsons herself brought her children to work after they were born, and wore them on a sling around her neck until they were four months old, allowing her to practice attachment parenting while being the CEO of the company, she says.

Kids have comfy couches, crayons, and “there’s always a spare iPad or laptop around,” she says. The company also offers employee health club memberships, which include children’s programs on some days, so parents can take a break by bringing their children to the gym or taking them to lunch, she says.

Palo Alto’s kid-friendly policies aren’t a substitution for day care and there are limits. You can’t bring your kids to work every day, but if they have a week off of school or a particular day when your child care situation has hit a bump in the road, the policies give you options, Parsons says. Children need to sit quietly with their parents—no running and screaming in the halls allowed. And colicky babies aren’t welcome because they’re too disruptive.

A voice for women leaders

In addition to changing the policies at Palo Alto, Parsons has become and outspoken champion of family-friendly policies. She does a number of speaking engagements to companies and organizations. Her popular blog, Mommy CEO details both her own challenges in balancing a demanding job and three children as well as the state of women in the workplace today.

Her policies even got the attention Washington, D.C.’s power brokers. Parson’s was invited to attend the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23. She said her favorite anecdote came from Michelle Obama, who told the group about going to a job interview with infant Sasha in a baby carrier.

“I’d never heard that anecdote before. We need more women talking about those experiences,” she says.

Some people are open to Parsons’s message, while others rail against children in the workplace as absurd and disruptive. Some people who don’t have children are offended at the notion they need to put up with someone else’s offspring while they’re trying to work, she says. At the same time, she finds that men who have recently had daughters tend to change their tune about family-friendly policies as they start to understand the issues their own daughters may face later in life as parents.

Parsons also keeps her finger on the pulse of her own employees. The management team at Palo Alto surveys employees to make sure the policies work for everyone. So far, so good, she says.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t give employees burritos, foosball, and kegs. You need to think about the real things that will matter to employees and give you access to talent you’re losing,” she says.

Bottom-line benefits

While still a small firm, Parsons says that her policies have had real bottom-line benefits. First, Palo Alto enjoys a loyal workforce with little turnover, she says. Fully one-third of her development team is women versus Silicon Valley’s average of 7%.

Revenue from the company’s flagship product has grown 106% over the past 12 months, which she attributes to the contributions of loyal, happy employees. That includes the four working fathers who take advantage of the kid-friendly policies on a regular basis, she says. But there is still more work to do to get all working parents feeling supported and able to pursue their careers without having to sacrifice their roles as parents, she says.

“We need more women in a position to say that we are going to have these types of policies. It’s just assumed that it’s unprofessional. Why is it unprofessional? We need to find a way to make work and family work for everyone,” she says.

[Image: Flickr user Janine]

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14 Comments

  • Elana Roth Katzor

    Happy companies embracing policies to make balancing career and being a mother more realistic.

  • YES, YES, YES. I suggested to my boss I needed a "nanny allowance" added to my salary so I could fly interstate to do work for him, and ensure my kids would be well looked after...suffice to say he looked at me like I was a lunatic...and hired another man to work in the team!

  • Hi Gwen - I so appreciate this story and your insight into Sabrina Parsons. The timing couldn't be more relevant as I recently have been thinking a lot about the choice between mommy-ing VS career and have been feeling frustrated that I still even feel like a choice is necessary. I recently wrote an article outlining some of the complications to choices I feel like I will be pressured to make in the future but feel inspired by CEOs like Parsons and hope that this is a trend that spreads. You can read my article here: http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140627182424-163206767-breastfeed-in-a-board-meeting-one-woman-s-career-aspirations?trk=prof-post

  • Elisabeth Barry

    My childhood home was my Dad's full time business and I am extremely proud of both my Dad and my Mom! My Dad followed his Dream in Life by beginning a Fish Hatchery when he was very young. He was 31 when he registered his business name. It was wonderful for me growing up watching my Dad being so happy doing the work that he absolutely loved. My Mom also enjoyed her role as the traditional 1950's Mom. Relatives and friends were always visiting, especially during the summers and this gave me my own dream in life of a bed, breakfast, lunch and dinner lodge. My parents living and working on and in my childhood home were the model for my exciting future!

  • ahgaffney

    It's great that you're highlighting such an awesome company, but you never once mention the company name. What company is she CEO of?

  • It is great to hear companies embracing policies to make balancing work & family life more manageable..... I think this approach should also be complimented by looking at women who wish to return to the workforce after taking a career break as a potential talent pool. Too many companies discount/rule out these applicants just because they opted to stay home for a period of time. A local company in Boston is trying to address that...but more need to follow! http://boston.cbslocal.com/2014/06/30/eye-on-education-concord-company-helps-stay-at-home-moms-resume-careers/

  • Priti Siddamsettiwar

    This sounds so great! New parents go under a lot of stress and anxiety. Companies and individuals who understand employees and have suitable policies gain a lot of employee respect and keeps employees motivated. Such policies are definitely long term investments to sustain employees and keep them satisfied. These should be adopted by every company. In this era as well, there are places where moms with young kids' resumes are rejected without interviewing them and stating the reasons that they are not suitable canditates.

  • Allowing kids in the workplace doesn't just have a positive effect on the bonding process and care of the children, it can also help to raise a harder-working generation of kids. Many self-employed parents already see the benefits of letting the kids in on the behind-the-scenes of a business, even allowing them to help when it's safe and appropriate. This speaks volumes to how a work environment that is inclusive of family matters can make for a more loyal set of workers. Kids love being a part of their parents' world, and their positive view of a company or industry as they grow up can lead to them passionately pursuing the same types of careers. The benefits are so intangible but very real.

  • I don't think raising kids in the workplace is being advocated at all. They're just trying to give parents options if they suddenly encounter a problem with childcare in addition to giving parents the flexibility to raise a family.

    "You can’t bring your kids to work every day, but if they have a week off of school or a particular day when your child care situation has hit a bump in the road, the policies give you options, Parsons says. Children need to sit quietly with their parents--no running and screaming in the halls allowed."

    However the fact that the CEO brought her child to work until they were 4 months old seems to directly contradict the "you can't bring your kids to work every day" rule. Do as I say not as I do?

  • Sabrina Berry Parsons

    Hi- so every employee that is nursing a baby has the opportunity to bring the baby in every day until they are 4-5 months old. % other employees have done the same thing. When the kids get older our policy is to give the flexibility to have kids in the office as necessary (sick babysitter, dentist appointment mid morning, etc) but not everyday.

  • What are some things that are done to minimize the disruption to other employees from crying babies? Is there a nursery or something available for babies?

    What amount of maternity leave do you guys make available to new mothers? Do you offer paternity leave too?

    I'm glad the business world is changing to be more accomodating for families and trying to make sure talented women don't get pushed out or fall behind due to the arrival of children. .