In 2009, Vanessa Loder’s career was thriving, she was an ambitious Stanford MBA grad and vice president at a leading private equity firm. But then she had an epiphany. “I suddenly realized that I’d been climbing the wrong ladder,” she says.
Loder had been so committed to breaking the glass ceiling that she’d never questioned her definition of success. And once she started to question it, she didn’t stop. She quit her job to study mindfulness, neuroscience, optimal performance, and behavioral psychology, and she emerged from this process committed to helping women find career success on their own terms. She began leadership development programs for executive women and created programs like, “How to Lean In Without Burning Out,” delivered at many Silicon Valley companies, and at TEDx Women.
And then she became a mother. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” she says. Starting with a traumatic birth experience, the process of having a child taught Vanessa that she no longer had ultimate control over her life. “It broke down all of my barriers. I had a lot of ideals about what it would be like to be a mom, and the kind of mom I would be,” she says. But she grew distraught as her vision of motherhood and the reality of her experience continued to diverge.
When Loder returned to work, she recognized how motherhood—for the vast majority of her clients—brought the same awareness she’d had earlier in her career. “Having a baby is a forcing mechanism,” she says. “It’s very hard to stay single-mindedly focused on money and power when you’re a parent. Becoming a mom forces you to reprioritize in a way that can be really helpful. If your work isn’t fulfilling or giving you the flexibility you need, something has to change.”
Many mothers, however, are forced to make choices they’d rather not make. According to research cited in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, 43% of women leave the workforce when they become mothers for an average of two years (this of course varies depending on position, education, and financial situation). And many of these mothers would rather remain working or return to work sooner, but they can’t find employment that will accommodate their needs. “I’ve coached many women who felt like they had to opt out of their jobs after they became moms,” Loder said. “It feels very black and white. Either you’re a stay-at-home mom with your kids, or you’re flying in your career at 100 miles an hour.” Loder says that executive women who have kids tell her: “I just want a meaty and meaningful role that’s part- time or flexible. Why is that so hard to find?”
And mothers who chose to remain working are likely to face “the maternal wall,” otherwise known as the bias that having children undermines a woman’s ability to perform in her career. Mothers are 79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and earn significantly less money than women with comparable resumes but without children.
Galvanized by her own experience, and those she saw mirrored in her clients, Loder decided to take action. She chose to start with the tech industry. “The tech industry knows they have a problem attracting and retaining women,” she said, “and they are more willing to invest in solutions than businesses in other industries.” After spending years leading programs inside many of the companies in Silicon Valley, Loder also had a broad network of influential women, like Liz Devlin, the head of Twitter’s parents’ group. Together, Loder, Devlin, and Devlin’s co-lead of Twitter’s parents’ group, Sarah Roos-Essl, decided to convene all of the women leading the parents’ groups at the biggest tech companies in the Bay Area for what would eventually become the Parents in Tech Alliance (PTA).
At the inaugural meeting of the PTA in February 2017, more than 20 women gathered in a conference room at Twitter’s downtown headquarters. Many of the mothers in the room were executives from companies like Salesforce, Yelp (both of which are past clients of mine), Uber, LinkedIn, Lyft, and more. Orli Cortel, the director of communications at the advocacy organization Working To Win Paid Leave In The U.S. (PL+US), was also at the first gathering.
Loder explained the purpose to the group: “We wanted to bring this group together to create change. To call more attention to the problems faced by working mothers.”
The group of women shared their experiences as working moms, and agreed to keep the group a secret until they could figure out how to make meaningful change that could reach beyond the group.
Sarah Johal, who at the time was leading UpLyft parents, the group she’d founded at Lyft to support caregivers, said listening to each woman share her story helped her realize the universal nature of her experience. She was shocked to discover that “it doesn’t matter what size a company is, or where they are in their life cycle. As working moms we were all facing similar biases and opportunities. It was very inspiring to know that I wasn’t alone in my desire to create change,” she says.
Since the first meeting, the alliance has met quarterly, gathering for working lunch discussions at different tech companies. The group has expanded to include representatives from Airbnb, HotelTonight, Stubhub, and more.
Johal says that the Alliance gave her the inspiration to explore how she could expand Lyft’s parental leave policy. She connected with PL+US through the Alliance, and the group helped her to establish the business case for investing in longer parental leaves for Lyft’s parents, which the company announced earlier this year.
The PTA is still moms-only for now, but plans to open up to dads in the future. The group has collectively identified a mission statement, to create “positive and meaningful change for parents working in technology.” The group aims to work with leaders and leading companies “to help guide their approach to building supportive and inclusive cultures.”
The group has broken up into task forces to tackle seven key levers for change:
- Advocating for equal paid parental leave for all parents of all genders.
- Establishing models for childcare assistance.
- Developing manager trainings.
- Pushing for cultural inclusion.
- Collecting data to demonstrate the ROI of these initiatives.
- Providing assistance to new mothers.
- Creating Parenting Employee Resource Groups.
While the group is focused on tech, they hope that their insights and impact on how to best support working parents will be felt in other industries, but they hope that the insights they glean will be relevant to other industries. They also hope to show how meaningfully supporting parents positively impacts the bottom line.
Amy Henderson is the CEO and cofounder of Tendlab, a consultancy that provides hands-on advice and workshops for Fortune 500 companies and their parents’ groups.