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This CEO bought into the ‘Big Lie’ of corporate feminism for years. Here’s what she learned

The founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms says, “It’s not about training women to negotiate or delegate or color-code their calendars. It’s about creating workplaces that are built around women.”

This CEO bought into the ‘Big Lie’ of corporate feminism for years. Here’s what she learned
[Source Images: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels, Thiago Matos/Pexels]

Reshma Saujani is founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit focused on closing the gender gap in technology. She is also the founder and CEO of Marshall Plan for Moms, which is working to inspire a national movement to center mothers in our economic recovery.

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Below, Saujani shares five key insights from her new book, Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think)Listen to the audio version—read by Saujani herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. “Having it all” is a euphemism for “doing it all.”

For years, I bought into what I call the “Big Lie” of corporate feminism. In fact, I preached it. I wrote women’s leadership books like Women Who Don’t Wait in Line and Brave, Not Perfect. I traveled the country telling girls that they could succeed if they leaned in harder, girlbossing their way to the corner office.

When young women came up to me after my speeches and asked, “Ms. Saujani, how do you juggle your family life with your career?” I used to literally wave them off with my hand. I thought that if we just don’t talk about that elephant in the room, then it won’t be there.

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But I was wrong. I learned the hard way that “having it all” is a euphemism for “doing it all.” I found myself in the middle of the pandemic, with two little kids, running an organization—and it almost broke me. And I’m one of the fortunate ones, because I have a supportive partner, resources to pay for childcare, and even a degree of control over my schedule. But like every other mom I know, when school was closed, I became teacher, chef, tech support, babysitter…and overnight, I was exhausted.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how many leadership courses you take or how much you delegate or whether you get a mentor. As long as women are doing an outsized share of the unpaid labor at home, and as long as we live in a country without childcare or paid leave, women are never going to achieve equality at work.

2. Workplaces have never worked for women.

When the pandemic hit, there is a reason it was women who left the workforce in droves. Our employers have never supported or even recognized our roles as mothers. Even though our labor force participation increased to the point where (pre-COVID) women made up more than half of the workforce, workplaces never evolved to fit our needs.

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The unspoken assumption is that the average worker is a man—and not just a man, but a man with a wife at home. Why does the school day end at 3 o’clock, smack in the middle of the work day? Why are we asking people to spend an hour a day commuting, when the average mom doesn’t have enough time to sleep at night? It goes all the way down to the temperature of offices. They are set at frigid temperatures to be more comfortable for men in their suits—meanwhile, women are freezing!

We need to fix the system, not the woman. We need to rewrite the whole script around women’s empowerment. It’s not about training women to negotiate or delegate or color-code their calendars. It’s about creating workplaces that are built around women—that have flexibility, and offer support for childcare. We need to be having a very different conversation.

3. Companies play a role in shaping the gender division of labor at home.

In their policies and practices, employers can either alleviate gender inequality at home, or exacerbate it. There’s no better example than in the case of paid parental leave. When a woman takes time off after giving birth, and a man doesn’t, it establishes right off the bat that caregiving and household responsibilities are going to fall primarily on the woman. Not to mention, it often results in women being penalized at work, while men are rewarded.

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On the flipside, we know that when men do take leave, their partners make more money in the long run. And it’s good for men, too—research shows that family leave produces happier, more productive working dads.

And yet, less than half of companies offer gender-neutral, paid parental leave. The vast majority of men in this country will take ten days of leave or less after having a child. And even if companies offer it, there is still a stigma around men taking it. I will never forget how my blood boiled when Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale tweeted that paternity leave was for “losers.”

But employers can shift our culture. When they don’t just offer paid leave to men, but actually incentivize it—tie it to performance reviews, lift it up, even mandate it—they are changing gender norms in ways that have long-lasting impacts on men, women, and broader society.

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4. Childcare is a business issue.

Today we are in the middle of a Great Resignation, and it’s being led by women. 1.1 million women are still out of the workforce since the pandemic hit. We have a record number of job openings, and a war for talent. But if employers are going to attract and retain women, they need to support us with childcare.

This country is in a childcare crisis. For dual income families, one parent is often basically just working to pay the babysitter, or they make less than the babysitter, and it actually costs them money to work. For single parents, it’s not a choice—they need childcare in order to work, and the cost of childcare can be up to half of their paycheck.

In many parts of the country, there are childcare deserts; you can’t even get your child enrolled in a daycare because there aren’t enough slots. Daycares are being forced to shutter because they can’t find workers. Consequently, quality and safety are also declining.

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“For dual income families, one parent is often basically just working to pay the babysitter, or they make less than the babysitter, and it actually costs them money to work.”

Employers can’t sit around and wait for the government to act, and they can’t continue treating childcare as an individual problem. Companies have no problem paying for egg freezing, museum memberships, you name it. If they are going to stem the Great Resignation and bring women back, then it’s time they support mothers, whether by offering on-site childcare, childcare subsidies, or access to backup care. It all helps.

5. When you fix the system for moms, you make it better for everyone.

When I founded Girls Who Code, I knew that we couldn’t just teach the most privileged and well-resourced girls—we had to teach the poorest. We had to teach girls in refugee camps in Jordan, girls in homeless shelters in Boston, girls taking two buses and two trains from Oakland to Palo Alto. Because if we could teach those girls, faced with so many obstacles, we could teach anyone.

The same is true for moms. Moms face so many challenges in workplaces that if you design for them—with flexibility and boundaries to promote mental health and prevent burnout—every single one of us will benefit.

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And just as we will all benefit, it’s on all of us to advocate for these changes. It cannot be the responsibility of moms to fight alone. So, if you are a man or a woman without kids, we need your allyship. We need you knocking on HR’s door.


This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.


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