Jane Park, CEO of Julep

Park has spent decades thinking about the policies that affect women’s lives--it was the focus on her public policy degree at Princeton and her law degree at Yale--and today, as a businesswoman, it remains one of her biggest concerns. "As a head of a company, I see a huge opportunity to create the kind of society we want," she says.

Her timing is great--we're in a moment when company heads such as Sophie Amoruso of the online retailer Nasty Gal are proving that strong female leadership can be good for both morale and the bottom line.

Lise Quinatana, seen here with her dog Dalziel, is the founder of the tech startup Narrative Technologies.

The nuts and bolts of building a feminist workplace can be complicated, as Julie Falk, executive director of the feminist magazine Bitch, knows well.

Meet Murphy, Bitch magazine's office dog.

i]Bitch[/i] manages to give full-time and part-time employees--all of whom are women--healthcare, maternity leave, and the "Bitch minimum wage" of $15 an hour. "If Bitch can do it, why can’t you?" Falk asks.

Falk says that part of her company's culture involves helping interns launch their careers in the media industry by writing them recommendation letters and preparing them for interviews.

How To Build A Feminist Workplace

These companies adapt to the needs of women, so employees aren't required to lean in too far.

Jane Park, CEO of the Seattle-based cosmetics company Julep, is fired up about the recent Hobby Lobby ruling.

I can tell it’s on her mind because one minute we’re talking about the design of nail polish bottles and a second later, she shifts gears, taking us in an unexpectedly political direction. “Last month, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that companies are people but I really don’t think that’s true," Park says, out of the blue. "A company is not one human being; if anything, it’s a mini-society. There are many ways that rules of a company impact our lives more than the rules of a government."

Park has spent decades thinking about the policies that affect women’s lives--it was the focus on her public policy degree at Princeton and her law degree at Yale--and today, as a businesswoman, it remains one of her biggest concerns. "As a head of a company, I see a huge opportunity to create the kind of society we want," she tells me.

Her timing is great--we're in a moment when company heads such as Sophie Amoruso of the online retailer Nasty Gal are proving that strong female leadership can be good for both morale and the bottom line.

It's been a little over a year since Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In hit bookstore shelves, sparking a nationwide discussion about gender in the workplace. While many praised the book, calling it an invaluable manual for women keen to assert themselves at work, critics argued that Sandberg was urging women to adapt to a broken system rather than demanding that corporate America adapt to women's needs. The good news for Sandberg detractors is that business leaders across the country are busy building a feminist workplace that allows women to thrive in their careers without having to lean in too far.

The nuts and bolts of building a feminist workplace can be complicated, as Julie Falk, executive director of the feminist magazine Bitch, based in Portland, Oregon, tells me. It often involves financial gymnastics that can be particularly challenging for a small organization like hers. Still, Bitch manages to give full-time and part-time employees--all of whom are women--health care, maternity leave, and the "Bitch minimum wage" of $15 an hour. "If Bitch can do it, why can’t you?" Falk asks.

While these policies benefit employees of both genders, they are particularly pertinent to women who, at a national level, earn only 77% of what their male counterparts do and have far more health care needs. "As a business leader, you get to create the model then organize your financial planning around it. Most organizations don’t think twice about paying the rent, but if you wanted, you could require all your staff to work from home so that you could afford to give them health care," she says.

Falk says it is crucial to put policies into writing whenever possible, but many aspects of workplace culture are difficult to codify. "Culture has to do with all those small and incremental messages you get as an employee," she says. For instance, she points out that tackling the gender gap means making a habit of supporting young female employees so they can rise through the ranks. This is crucial in male-dominated fields like journalism, where women are still underrepresented on mastheads and in newsrooms. (The coverage of Jill Abramson’s firing from the New York Times threw this problem into stark relief.) Falk says that part of her company's culture involves helping Bitch interns launch their careers in the media industry by writing them recommendation letters and preparing them for interviews.

There are also policies that cannot be generalized because they can only be applied on a case-by-case basis. Julep's Park points out that women’s concerns vary at different life stages--from breastfeeding to looking after sick children--which makes it difficult for them to conform to a fixed work schedule. If companies are inflexible, they risk losing these employees altogether. In her book, Sandberg points to the statistic that 43% of highly qualified women with children drop out of the workforce. She encourages women to be more ambitious and stick with their careers, painful though it might be; conversely, Park suggests that companies make it easier for women to balance their work and family responsibilities. And she has firsthand knowledge of exactly how taxing pregnancy and motherhood can be, since she has had two children while balancing a high-powered career.

"One of the biggest pieces to retaining women in the workforce is thinking of them as individuals," she says. If fact, her experiences as a mother have helped her fine-tune this part of her management philosophy: “You can do the same thing for two kids but get completely different results because they are just different people.”

On an organizational level, Park encourages managers to clearly communicate with their team members about what their goals and priorities are, then give them the autonomy to manage their own time and take time off as necessary. Lise Quintana, founder of the San Francisco tech startup Narrative Technologies, has a similar approach with her workers. "If an employee needs to leave early to take care of a child or a parent or their own self, they should do that,” she says. “It is about treating them like grown-ups and trusting that they will complete their work.” Quintana also makes the case that it is downright sinister for employers not to accommodate the particular situations of their workers. “That’s treating your employees as products,” she says. "If your employee is suffering some kind of personal crisis, it is not acceptable to get rid of her and replace her with a shiny new employee."

Lise Quintana

However, it is not enough to tell employees they have these rights. Falk says that workplace culture will not change if women do not feel like they can take advantage of these benefits without managers thinking poorly of them. "If no one is taking vacation, then of course you are going to think twice before taking family leave," she says. She argues that business leaders should reinforce the culture by speaking up, urging employees to go home when they are unwell or have family issues. “This feeds into the idea that the organization cares about you as a person; the little steps build up to making employees feel more comfortable taking advantage of those bigger policies." Park says that senior management also has a responsibility to serve as role models and take advantage of these policies themselves. When Park’s co-founder and COO gave birth to twins, she had to take extended maternity leave and currently works part time. “We’re making it clear that we are keen to hang on to our employees during tricky periods in their life,” she says.

But perhaps the hardest part of creating a feminist workplace is ensuring that women’s perspectives are respected. In many offices, women’s voices are undermined in subtle ways that are hard to address. Quintana tells me that she worked for several large technology firms where she was one of a very small number of female employees. "It felt like I was working two jobs: doing whatever work I already had to do, then playing the 'token girl' role in PR efforts," she recalls. In meetings away from the public eye, meanwhile, her comments would often be ignored; when a male employee made the same point five minutes later, senior management would be all ears. She started her own company, in part, to escape this ongoing marginalization.

Quintana is not alone in her desire to launch her own business after a lifetime of unsatisfying experiences in workplaces where men set the culture. A report last month noted that one in 10 women in the U.S. is starting or running her own company and that these women entrepreneurs are three times happier than women who work for someone else. This bodes well for women desperate to escape staff meetings where they might as well be invisible.

For her part, Park deliberately chose feminine language to describe the corporate culture at Julep, defying the conventions of male-dominated business speak. She has built the company’s messaging around "girlfriends" and the power of female friendships. "I am inspired by what girlfriends can do for one another," she says. "I’m not expecting my employees to be best friends, but I want to infuse our culture with the best parts of female friendships: the sense of supporting each other, taking risks and ongoing growth." With this kind of female vernacular, Park sets the tone for her organization, making it clear from the outset that the female point of view--which is so often dismissed as silly--is valid and worth taking seriously.

Ultimately, Park wants to shift the conversation away from how businesses can help women, because she says that retaining female employees helps businesses even more. By having a corporate culture that is welcoming to women, organizations have the opportunity to find and hold on to the best talent on the market, regardless of their gender. “I am interested in how we become a fantastic and enduring company,” says Park. "Our goal has always been to find phenomenal people who are making a great impact and doing whatever it takes to retain them. In the practice of doing this, we have come up with strategies to hold on to women longer."

[Images courtesy of Julep, Bitch and NextSpace]

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12 Comments

  • contrarianxo

    The Supreme Court did not rule that "companies are persons". That overly simplistic description has been touted in the media for people who do not understand the legal definition of "closely held corporation" (eg: usually family owned or such). Does it not occur to Jane that shoving her personal views on all her employees and customers is just as much a violation of their rights as this sort of heavy-handed uber-feminism in every aspect of the workplace. How does wearing green and gold nail polish liberate women? She wants it all, and that's OK, but let the rest of us define our own "all".

  • Edward S Jr Gilbert

    Great concept, although the company Bitch using a term that some feminist would take to offense. However, flipping the script empowering employees to work adjusting to family schedules, illness and demands are what every company should empower their employees with rather then the constant monitoring, keeping tabs on every aspect suspecting they are not professional enough to complete their work. The gender bias needs to seriously be addressed due to many men are key parents as well and the constant stereotype of men not needing or wanting to be in their children's needs to be SERIOUSLY ADDRESSED! Having 2 children ripped out of my life due to this stereotype in Vermont is a FEMINIST move which needs to be CORRECTED.

  • The title of this article, as a female who happens to really like guys, is off-putting. I wouldn't want to work in a "feminist workplace" any more than I'd want to work at an office for "Redheads Only" or "Spicy Food Lovers". The "Boys, Keep Out!" discussions are flawed for the reasons Mr. Clay mentioned...there is a discriminatory tone that is hard to overlook and not cry out, "Double Standard!" Discrimination against anyone based on a personal crisis, health scare or desire to stay home with their newborn is wrong. Forget gender.

    I applaud Jane Park's efforts. I work in automotive, the original "male-dominated" industry. I'd luv to sit here and tout how my female colleagues banded around each other to rally support...but it doesn't happen. There is no sisterhood or girlfriend culture. It's mythic. The Wall Street Journal had a very apt article on this point. Working with all "one" of anything isn't the answer. It's about balance, not blame.

  • Harold Clay

    Imagine a company that boasted that 100% of its employees are male. . . is that something to be proud of? Why would it make such boasts? Why wouldn't it try to hire women as well as men? Would it not be considered a business that actively discriminates against women?

    The feminist magazine mentioned in this article makes such boasts, except against men. How do they expect to be taken seriously when they are actively doing and boasting about what they claim to be against, which suggests that feminism isn't opposed to discrimination after all, as long as men are on the short end of it.

  • The idea here is that there already ARE all-male companies, and have been for the greater part of the modern business world. A large number of companies and organizations are still mostly male, or have entirely male leadership. The magazine boasting of a 100% female workforce is doing so because it is rare. The hope is to reach a point someday where it's not "special" or rare that a company is dominantly female, or dominantly male, or dominantly anything. This is an ideal, and may be impossible to reach in its entirety, but there is an imbalance here that is in the works of becoming somewhat balanced. It's not anti-male. There's no forceful "taking" of male power in the workplace. Rather, it's highlighting the achievements of women in a system that has consistently excluded them/treated them unfairly, with a goal of someday no longer having to do so.

  • Definitely hear you Elena, but Harold is pointing at something here.

    When we use discrimination to fight discrimination we are not changing anything - just pointing it in a different direction.

    Really - the entire concept that you need to fight to bring balance is flawed. If there is a fight there is a problem. The universe is naturally balanced. Returning yourself to balance is really the only way I can see to bring it back. If you are fighting you are not in balance.

    While I recognize that there has been a massive disparity in the masculine/feminine power in our society (and pretty much every society in the history of the world) swinging the pendulum completely to the other side is just as damaging.

    I ultimately applaud people for taking steps towards equality in our society - but the only real way to stop the damage is to stop doing damaging things.

  • Once there is balance, there will be no "fighting". The reason that it can be called "fighting" right now is because the group (females) is systematically at a disadvantage. When has a disadvantaged group become less disadvantaged by sitting idly by, and waiting for a group in power to simply hand them what they deserve?

    I do not agree with affirmative action programs in universities or in the workplace, because they simply should not need to exist. There ought to be this balance already. Unfortunately, the balance is not there.

    The pendulum is not "swinging to the other side". It's simply swinging back to center. It sounds like any advantage a man has also being afforded to a woman is offensive to you, and that's offensive to me.