Leadership Lessons from Corporate Feminism

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

Below, Saujani shares five key insights from his 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. “Have it all” is a euphemism for “do it all”.

For years, I’ve bought into what I call the “big lie” of corporate feminism. In fact, I preached it. I’ve written books on female leadership like Women who don’t line up and brave, not perfect. I traveled across the country telling girls they could be successful if they bent over harder, directing them to the corner office.

When young women came up to me after my speeches and asked me, “Ms. Saujani, how do you reconcile your family life with your career? I used to literally wave them with my hand. I thought if we weren’t talking about that elephant in the room, then he wouldn’t be there.

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 small children, leading an organization – and it almost broke me. And I’m one of the lucky ones because I have a supportive partner, resources to pay for childcare, and even some control over my schedule. But like every other mom I know, when school was closed, I became a teacher, chef, tech support, babysitter… and overnight I was exhausted.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how many leadership courses you take, how many delegations, or whether you have a mentor. As long as women do a disproportionate share of unpaid work in the home and as long as we live in a country without childcare or paid leave, women will never achieve equality at work.

2. Workplaces have never worked for women.

When the pandemic hit, there’s a reason why it was women who left the workforce in droves. Our employers have never supported or even acknowledged our roles as mothers. Even though our participation in the workforce has grown to the point where (before COVID) women made up more than half of the workforce, workplaces have never evolved to meet our needs.

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 p.m., in the middle of the working day? Why are we asking people to spend an hour a day commuting, when the average mother doesn’t have enough time to sleep at night? This goes as far as the office temperature. They’re tuned for freezing temperatures to be more comfortable for the men in their suits – meanwhile, the 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 schedules. It’s about creating workplaces that are women-focused, flexible and offer childcare support. We need to have a very different conversation.

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

In their policies and practices, employers can either reduce gender inequality in the home or exacerbate it. There is no better example than the case of paid parental leave. When a woman takes time off after giving birth, and a man does not, it establishes at the outset that care and household responsibilities will primarily fall to the woman. Not to mention that this often results in women being penalized at work, while men are rewarded.

On the other hand, we know that when men do take time off, their partners make more money in the long run. And it’s good for men, too – research shows 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 off or less after having a child. And even though companies offer it, there’s still a stigma around men who take it. I’ll never forget how my blood boiled when Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale tweeted that paternity leave was for “losers”.

But employers can change our culture. When they don’t just offer men paid time off, but actually motivate – link it to performance reviews, increase it, even make it mandatory – they change gender norms in ways that have lasting impacts on men, women and society at large.

4. Child care is a business issue.

Today we are in the midst of a great resignation, and it is led by women. 1.1 million women are still out of work since the pandemic hit. We have a record number of job openings and a talent war. But if employers want to attract and retain women, they must support us in childcare.

This country is in a child care crisis. For dual-income families, one parent often only works to pay for the babysitter, or they earn less than the babysitter, and it actually costs them money to work. For single parents, this is not a choice: they need to look after their children to work, and the cost of childcare can represent up to half of their salary.

In many parts of the country, there are childcare deserts; you can’t even enroll your child in daycare because there aren’t enough slots. Child care centers are forced to close because they cannot find workers. Consequently, the quality and safety are also down.

“For two-earner families, one parent often works just to pay for the babysitter, or they earn less than the babysitter, and it actually costs them money to work.

Employers cannot sit back and wait for the government to act, and they cannot continue to treat childcare as an individual issue. Businesses have no problem paying for egg freezing, museum memberships, etc. If they want to stem the Great Resignation and bring women back, it’s time they supported mothers, whether by providing on-site childcare, childcare subsidies, or access to supplementary care. Everything helps.

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

When I founded Girls Who Code, I knew we couldn’t just teach the most privileged and endowed 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 these girls, facing so many obstacles, we could teach anyone.

The same is true for mothers. Moms face so many challenges in the workplace that if you design for them, with flexibility and boundaries to promote mental health and prevent burnout, all of us will benefit.

And just as we will all benefit, it is up to all of us to advocate for these changes. It cannot be the mothers’ responsibility to fight alone. So, if you are a man or a woman without children, we need your alliance. We need you to knock on the HR door.


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


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