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."
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."