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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.
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.
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.
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.