Pando

America's bias against working moms comes down to one question: Do you value your female employees or not?

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 26, 2018

From The Gender Wars Desk

Before you consider a single finding in ReCode’s survey of mothers returning to work in the tech world, you need to remember and internalize one reality: Just how backwards this country is when it comes to supporting working moms.

According to Pew, some 40% of Americans believe it is bad for society if women work, despite the fact that 40% of American households are supported by female breadwinners. American working mothers are squeezed in an unfair cultural vise of “your children will not eat if you don’t work” and “why are you such a horrible mother with all this working?” Even if you have come from privilege, you are considered a bad employee if you are not 100% available to your employer and a bad mother if you are not 100% available to your children. Some 60% of American women face this damned if you do, damned if you don’t “Maternal Wall” at work.

Earlier this year, an Oklahoma lawmaker referred to women as mere “hosts” once they are impregnated, arguing their body and their choices over their bodies didn’t really belong to them anymore once they’d conceived. Nearly half of Americans seem to believe women remain a sort of “host” even after their babies leave their bodies and go out into the world. You are forever to subjugate your needs and desires to theirs in the name of being one of the most guilt-inducing phrases in the English language  “a good mother.” 

We are a global outlier in how we treat working mothers. We are one of the only nations on earth that does not give women paid leave, let alone subsidized childcare. More than 80% of American women get zero paid leave. Even for those women lucky enough to get paid leave, this has a deep cultural psychological impact. We view leave as a privilege, a “perk”, not an entitlement. As a result some 60% of women in tech have felt pressure to shorten or forgo their parental leave. A sort of survivor’s guilt at being one of the minority of women who get the right to recover and bond with their babies for a few weeks, after, yunno continuing to propagate the human race. 

There’s bias against women all over the world. But it’s a particularly American form of screwed up bias to force new mothers to prove themselves again the second they come back to work, and give them no time to recover before doing so. It’s as logically inconsistent as it is biased: The patriarchy at once would have us believe that motherhood is such a disability, that a woman can’t possibly be a good mother and a good employee AND that women don’t deserve the right to have a few weeks to recover after doing something so nearly-superhuman as giving birth. 

So when you read that 19.4% of new mothers returning to tech rated their experience as a new mother returning to work as “great” and 28.8% rated their experience as good, know that women in America have been conditioned to believe that even taking a pause to recover is an absolute luxury. When you read that 10.8% rated their experience as “horrible” know how bad it must be for them. It’s “horrible” even by American standards of not supporting working mothers. 

Tech should be the industry that outperforms in supporting new working moms. It’s a so-called “knowledge worker” industry, startups and tech giants alike prize their nimbleness and flexibility, and always-on, work-from-anywhere cultures. And because the war for talent in tech is so great, and the margins of software companies so lush, more money can be spent retaining and attracting talent. Hence the leather jackets, the game rooms, the free food, the Beyonce concerts, the gyms. 

Tech companies also pride themselves on doing things differently, on “making the world a better place.”

So the fact that any tech company doesn’t offer any paid maternity leave should shock us. 20% of new mothers in tech got no maternity leave. That is inexcusable. Small companies will tell you that they can’t possible spare an employee, that their resources are too scarce. Bullshit. My hunch is that most of the women working at “small companies” who are Re/Code readers are working at venture funded companies. There is no company that can’t spare you for six weeks. Especially considering how tech CEOs consistently complain that hiring is the hardest part of their job, the most consuming part of their job, and how costly it is to replace a key employee or recover if you’ve made a bad hire.

The retention benefits alone should pay for themselves. You are telling me that a startup can’t possibly afford to give a new mother six weeks off, but your CEO can afford to spend that much time or more looking to replace her?

It comes down to this: You value your female employees or you do not. Pick one.

And don’t tell me I don’t get it. I have run two venture-backed companies and stared down a dwindling balance sheet with weeks left before we’d go insolvent if I didn’t produce a miracle. My new company, Chairman Mom, has a tiny staff and each of us have at least five jobs we need to do. We have a finite window to launch a product, iterate like mad, and prove our concept before we run out of capital. I know how hard it is. And yet, we offer eight weeks of fully paid leave on day one of employment. Because we only hire people who will fundamentally move the needle on our company. And I don’t want to risk losing a single one of them. I can hold the ship together for eight weeks. We can lean on an outside contractor if need be. I cannot replace my key employees. They are the value of our company right now.

I was the first woman working at TechCrunch to get pregnant. We’d just been acquired by AOL and Michael Arrington told me if we’d still been independently owned, my taking six weeks of maternity leave would have “crippled” the company. And yet, when he would become overwhelmed with the stress of running the blog, he would frequently disappear for weeks on end. TechCrunch survived just fine, and Arrington was far more important to TechCrunch than any other employee.

As far as some of the other findings about, say, lactation rooms, I get that one. If you are sizable company, you should be ashamed. If you are a tiny startup subletting office space, a plush lactation room might be a legitimate challenge. Ditto on-site childcare. 40% of women rated childcare options and benefits as “horrible.” That requires space, and it requires on-going capital expenditure. If you are booking Beyonce to play a company event, but don’t offer any help with childcare, you should reevaluate your culture. It’s embarrassing, for instance, that Apple has a gym in its new campus but not on-site childcare. But if you are a fledgling startup, I get that on-site childcare is a luxury you cannot afford. (Perhaps also, that chef you have is too…)

Some of the benefits for working moms require profits and they require physical space be set aside. But maternity leave doesn’t. It only requires you value your employees and make the self-interested calculation about employee retention. If your company does not, know that others do.