Author Talks: Where are the women who are missing from the workforce?

Amid the pandemic, working mothers have had to downshift their careers to care for their children full time. Reshma Saujani says now is the time to change this dual burden.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and an activist for women’s economic empowerment , about her new book, Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think) (Atria/One Signal Publishers, March 2022). Working mothers are burned out, and companies are losing the unique value they bring to the table. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why is this a crisis moment for women at work?

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The book is a manifesto about how to make workplaces finally work for women. Right now, it feels like there’s never been a worse time to be a working woman. From our reproductive rights to the economic situation to our mental health, we have been crushed, and our workplaces have not been working for women—they never have. If you believe that you should never waste a good crisis, this is the exact moment to make workplaces finally work for women.

Why should we focus on working mothers?

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I wrote The Marshall Plan for Moms because in the early pandemic, almost 12 million women were pushed out of the workforce. The vast majority of those were working moms. Moms were finding that they had to essentially switch their paid labor for unpaid labor.

They were forced to either downshift or leave their jobs because they were homeschooling their kids and because daycare centers were shut down. They no longer could bring grandparents or caretakers into the home because of the global pandemic. The economic crisis that women were facing was an economic crisis that moms were facing, and it was important to really focus on the impact of motherhood on our economy and on our country.

Hasn’t pandemic work-from-home been helpful for working mothers?

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No, it hasn’t. Working from home has not been liberating for moms at all times, I would say, in many ways because working moms during the pandemic were the ones that were doing the homeschooling. They were the ones that were doing all of the unpaid labor at home.

I am a CEO, but in between every Zoom call I was doing the laundry, making sure that lunch was put on the table, making sure that my son had logged into school. All of that cognitive labor, all of that caretaking, was being done by women.

I am a CEO, but in between every Zoom call I was doing the laundry, making sure that lunch was put on the table, making sure that my son had logged into school. All of that cognitive labor, all of that caretaking, was being done by women.

Women are twice as likely as men to be caretakers and to be doing the childcare and homeschooling. That has been proved out through every survey. In fact, there was no separation between home and work, so more things piled up on women’s to-do lists. At the beginning of the pandemic, I think you had a lot more empathy from employers when your kid interrupted your Zoom call, or if you needed more flexibility.

I feel like a lot of that empathy, a lot of that understanding, is gone. There’s this anxiousness with employers that they just want things to get back to the way that it was, which means that they want working moms back in the office like they were before.

Is there more anger than hopefulness at this moment, then?

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I would say that there is more rage from working moms. The recent jobs report came out, and men were 27 percent more likely to enter the workforce than women. You still have 1.1 million women that are missing from the workforce.

One out of three working moms are thinking about quitting their jobs. Fifty-one percent of mothers say that their mental health has actually declined. Women and moms are not OK, and the government has failed us. Build Back Better is basically dead.

This wasn’t just a pandemic story. For far too long, we have been juggling too much. We were sold a big corporate lie: that we could ‘girl boss’ our way and ‘lean in’ our way to the top. We have always participated in a workforce not only not built for us but that has been stacked against us. I think moms are tired. I think we’re burned out. I think we’re angry.

What we’ve learned is this wasn’t just a pandemic story. For far too long, we have been juggling too much. We were sold a big corporate lie: that we could “girl boss” our way and “lean in” our way to the top. We have always participated in a workforce not only not built for us but that has been stacked against us. I think moms are tired. I think we’re burned out. I think we’re angry.

Even in this last [COVID-19] wave, when schools shut down again and daycare centers shut down again and people again found themselves scrambling to work and to take care of their kids, I don’t know of a single mother who got a memo from their employers saying, “What do you need? What can I do to help you?”

What should employers urgently do?

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We have got to push employers to pay up, to do the right thing, to finally make workplaces work for moms. There are three things that I’ve been talking about and focused on that I want to bring up here.

One is that we have an opportunity to finally get employers to start subsidizing childcare. Childcare is not my personal problem, it is an economic issue, and right now less than 11 percent of employers subsidize some form of childcare.

Study after study has shown that the reason why working mothers are not coming back to work is because of childcare. If employers want to rein in [the competition for] talent , if they want to bring those talented, diverse women back to the workplace, they have to do something about childcare.

Study after study has shown that the reason why working mothers are not coming back to work is because of childcare. If employers want to rein in [the competition for] talent, if they want to bring those talented, diverse women back to the workplace, they have to do something about childcare.

Secondly, there’s been a lot of conversation about paid leave. To me, the focus needs to be not on whether a company is offering paid leave but on whether they are mandating gender-neutral paid leave. Are they actually tying performance and performance reviews to whether men are taking leave?

There have been studies that show that 70 percent of American dads still take less than ten days off when they have a child. So many companies I know gaslight men when they actually take leave. That policy has to change.

Finally, we have got to provide support for mothers’ mental health. One of the subgroups that are the most impacted through COVID-19 in terms in their mental health are moms. Moms are not coming back OK. We have got to set up policies in the workplace that account for this and that provide that kind of support for mothers.

What can men do to help?

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Our allies are critical in transforming our workplace. Any women’s movement needs to have men that are standing side by side, demanding the same things that we need.

At Girls Who Code, 40 percent of our teachers are men. While moms might have the most to gain by some of the policies that I’m recommending, we all have a stake in creating an equitable, diverse workplace. Especially the men who are partners at home—we need you.

My husband and I, through this book and through this process, have had lots of conversations about what needs to change. I’m the mother of two sons, and I want my sons to grow up being caretakers and to not think that caretaking is for the realm of women only.

I want every man out there to recognize and to understand the world as we live it and to figure out as an ally what they can actually do to get to gender equality at home. They play a big role—there’s no way that we get to gender equality at home without them.

Are American working moms united these days?

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I don’t think it is too politically divisive to say that workplaces have never worked for women. I think that you would get a resounding “yes,” whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, whether you are an hourly employee or a salaried employee, whether you are Black, White, gay, straight, trans.

We all know that this is not working for us. I think COVID-19 exposed that. I also think for most of us who are mothers, we have always had to sacrifice—or feel like we’ve had to sacrifice—our motherhood for our job. I think for a lot of us, we feel like we can’t be an ideal worker and an ideal mother at the same time and that we’ve learned that having it all is just a euphemism for doing it all.

We all know that this is not working for us. I think COVID-19 exposed that. I also think for most of us who are mothers, we have always had to sacrifice—or feel like we’ve had to sacrifice—our motherhood for our job. I think for a lot of us, we feel like we can’t be an ideal worker and an ideal mother at the same time and that we’ve learned that having it all is just a euphemism for doing it all.

I think that there’s actually a lot of sisterhood. Pay Up is a message for all women, regardless of political persuasion. I think we have all recognized—regardless of whether you are an hourly employee or a salaried employee, whether you have resources or don’t have resources—every mom I know has been stretched to the max.

I think that there is a lot of cohesion on the fact that something has to be done, that we can’t go back to a broken system, that workplaces were never designed for us, and that if we’re not going to waste the crisis, this is the moment to demand something from our employers, so we don’t have to choose between our job and our children.

What would tangible success look like for working moms?

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Near-term success looks like organizing women in every single workplace, starting a conversation around Pay Up, and getting women to reject the notion of “motherhood is a choice, and you don’t get to ask anything from your employer.” Near-term success is recognizing that in the middle of the Great Resignation, we have an opportunity to help us and to get the support that we need from employers.

The opportunity right now for women is to start getting some real structural change. In the near term and the midterm, I would love to ignite a conversation on subsidizing childcare and getting companies to offer things like backup care, more on-site childcare, or cash subsidies to parents. Childcare is an economic issue, it’s not a personal issue, and offering childcare as a benefit is a way for companies to manage their attrition.

The second thing I want to ignite is a real conversation around mandating paid leave—or making it gender neutral—tying paid leave to performance reviews for men, recognizing that companies have a role to play in [getting to] gender equality at home.

Those first few months when you have a child are so critical to a couple negotiating their to-do list. Companies can actually help get to gender equality at home by the policies that they set forth. The third thing is igniting a conversation on pay equity.

What did writing this book teach you?

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What I learned in this book is that the pay gap is between mothers and fathers—not between childless women and childless men. When we see a mom and she has a child, we think that she’s less committed, she’s less serious about her job, and we pay her less for it.

When we see a dad, we think, “Ah. He needs the support. Let’s pay him more.” Rooting out the motherhood penalty is something that every company has the ability to do, so let’s get it done.

Watch the full interview

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