The pandemic’s powerful impact on the workforce has drawn renewed attention to the structural barriers women and mothers face to fully participate in the economy. In episode five of McKinsey’s Future of America podcast, the firm’s Kweilin Ellingrud and Kunal Modi speak with Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code and the founder and CEO of the Marshall Plan for Moms, about opportunities to accelerate a more inclusive economic recovery for working women and mothers. This transcript has been edited.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Welcome to the fifth episode of McKinsey’s Future of America podcast, where we’ll explore how we can build a future that drives sustainable and inclusive growth. I’m your host for today, Kweilin Ellingrud. I’m a McKinsey Global Institute director and a senior partner based in Minneapolis. I lead insights on the future of work, gender equality, racial equity, and productivity.
Today I’m thrilled to be joined by Kunal Modi and Reshma Saujani. Kunal is a partner in McKinsey’s Bay Area office. He is a leader in our Public & Social Sector Practice and our customer experience work and helps direct insights on gender equality. Reshma is the founder of the leading nonprofit Girls Who Code and the founder and CEO of the Marshall Plan for Moms, a national movement to make mothers central to our economic recovery. Marshall Plan for Moms also focuses on valuing the labor of mothers by advocating public- and private-sector policies to support mothers in the workplace. Reshma is the author of four books, including, most recently, Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (Atria/One Signal Publishers), published in mid-March. Kunal and Reshma, welcome and thank you for being here today.
Reshma Saujani: Thank you for having us.
Kunal Modi: Thank you so much.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Can you both tell our listeners a little bit about your backgrounds? Reshma, let’s start with you.
Reshma Saujani: I’m the daughter of refugees. I’m the mother of two and a geriatric dog; I can’t forget Stanley. I was the first South Asian woman to run for the United States Congress. I lost spectacularly and lost again when I ran for public advocate of New York City, which led me to build my nonprofit Girls Who Code, which is one of the largest organizations for women and girls in the world. We’ve taught over half a million girls to code and reached another half a billion through our work of building the pipeline of talent to close a gender gap in technology.
Now I’m launching and building my next movement, which is to make mothers central to both public and private strategies after the economic recovery—to make sure that we finally get to equality in the workplace. I clearly like to write books. My latest book is Pay Up, which is about the future of women and work and why it’s different than you think.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Kunal, tell us a bit more about your background.
Kunal Modi: Thanks, Kweilin. I’m a partner with McKinsey as you mentioned. I’m a leader in our Public & Social Sector Practice. My mission is really about how do we help governments, nonprofits, philanthropies, and mission-driven companies better serve the public and customers? I’m a leader in our customer experience work, so I’m really interested in how organizations design solutions in a more human-centered way. I’ve also had the privilege of being a contributing author to Lean In for Graduates,1 where I talked about the role that men play in advancing gender equality in the workplace. I’m also the dad of two young daughters, so every single day I think about these challenges that we’re going to talk through today. And I’m excited. I have lots to share.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Reshma, let’s start with you. What does sustainable and inclusive growth mean to you?
Reshma Saujani: Briefly, it means that everybody can participate and it means innovation. I built Girls Who Code because I saw lines and lines of boys learning how to be Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and I asked, “Where are the girls?” If we’re going to find a solution to COVID-19, cancer, and climate, we need to have girls coding. With this new movement that I’m building, it’s all about inclusive growth and sustainable inclusive growth. We do not solve tough problems, we do not innovate or create, unless we have the other half of our population being able not just to survive at work but thrive at work.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Kunal, what about you? What does sustainable and inclusive growth mean?
Kunal Modi: I think it’s great that Reshma started with sustainable inclusive growth as being a world in which everyone can contribute. It’s also a world in which everyone benefits. How do we take advantage of the different perspectives, lived experiences, and ideas that different folks bring to the table? I think we too often underestimate the value of different life experiences and what that brings in a business context, in an economic context. We’ve got so many challenges to tackle as a society—from climate change to gender equity to economic inclusion—that we’re shifting the paradigm away from just a focus on growth to growth that works for everyone, in which everyone benefits. So this is really an exciting time and an important responsibility for all of us.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Reshma, you just published your new book a few weeks ago—Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work, which calls for innovative corporate leadership, government intervention, and a sweeping culture shift to improve outcomes for women at work and to more deeply value mothers. What motivated you to write the book? What are some of the insights that we should remember?
Reshma Saujani: What motivated me to write the book is that women are in crisis. I found myself, at the beginning of the pandemic, with Girls Who Code having a Super Bowl ad. I was about to have my second child. I was so looking forward to taking my maternity leave. Then, three weeks later, the pandemic hit, and I found myself having to care for my newborn, to homeschool my five-year-old, and to save my nonprofit from being shut down. Because when pandemics hit, the first resources to go are for women and girls.
My entire e-team was working women, and what we were saying to each other on the Zoom chat was, “Just hold on a minute. When September comes and the schools open, we’ll be fine. We can do that KPI, launch that program, raise that $100,000.” Then, when the schools didn’t open, I remember naively thinking, “Are they going to ask me about that?” Because, as you know, Kweilin, America does time-use surveys, so we knew that two-thirds of the caretaking work and the schooling was being done by women. And we knew that school closures would force working moms to supplement their paid labor and unpaid labor. So the idea that a policy decision like that could be made without our input terrified me.
The second piece is that you started to see millions and millions and millions of women exit the workforce. Seeing that and experiencing that is what really led me to start the Marshall Plan for Moms and to write my book Pay Up. Because, Kweilin, I realized that I had been focused on the wrong thing. For the past decade, I had been telling girls to barnstorm the corner office, lean in really hard, and “girl-boss” their way to the top. And I learned the hard way that “having it all” is just a euphemism for doing it all. We can’t just color-code our calendar to equality. We have to stop trying to fix the woman and instead fix the structure. If we don’t fix the structure—through paid leave, affordable childcare, flexibility, all the things that make it possible for women to be moms and to work—we’re never going to get to equality. That’s why I wrote this book, to really figure out how. We’ve dissected the problem; now how do we do it?
Kweilin Ellingrud: What are some of those solutions that you think would be most effective?
Reshma Saujani: One of the things I’m obsessed about—which is what I think brings Kunal and me together in this conversation—is what can the private sector do about childcare? We know that childcare is one of the largest cost centers for families. In many ways, that is the reason women either exit the workforce or downshift their careers. If we can make childcare affordable, like other industrialized nations, you could get not just the full participation but the healthy participation of women.
The second thing is about mental health. For the first time, the CDC2 reported that moms are the second subgroup that is facing the largest amount of anxiety and depression after the pandemic. You’re seeing high rates of alcohol addiction, pill addiction, suicide. That’s because we have experienced trauma over the past two years not just for ourselves but for our children. This is an opportunity for employers to say, “I care more about you than just your output, I care about your wellness.”
We should be doing not just performance reviews but wellness reviews and checking in, especially with our working moms, on “How are you doing? What do you need?” We have an opportunity, in this “great resignation,” to redesign workplaces—simple things like why are work days 9 to 5 and school days 8 to 3? Even changing the hours when we are working in the office could be game-changing for so many families.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Why is childcare so important for sustainable and inclusive growth? Kunal, can you help us connect the dots on why this matters and why we should all care about childcare?
Kunal Modi: We’ve been partnering with Reshma and her team at the Marshall Plan for Moms to conduct research on the experiences of working families. We ran a survey of nearly 2,000 working parents across the United States. What we found was that childcare or, actually, the lack thereof is a central challenge that people experience in every part of their labor market experience. Forty-five percent of mothers with kids under the age of five who left the workforce during the pandemic cited childcare as one of the reasons they left, compared with only 14 percent of men. Reshma also alluded to the ability to be fully present and engaged in the workforce. Fifty-seven percent of women with children under the age of five felt like they’re held back from taking on more responsibility or taking that step-up role or taking that late meeting, because of their childcare responsibilities, compared with only 38 percent of men. So you see a 20-percentage-point gap between working moms and working dads.
Lastly, on returning to the workforce, 54 percent of women who left the workforce to handle childcare during the pandemic said they would take advantage of a paid childcare option if it were available to them. Eighty-eight percent of women further said that some version of childcare support—whether it’s a subsidy, flexible hours, or a number of other solutions that we’ll dig into—would make them more likely to choose an employer because that allows them to be fully engaged in the workforce.
I know we’re going to get into the data in this conversation, but the overarching headline is that childcare is central to help most working parents participate fully in the workforce. We really can’t think about designing the workplace of the future without considering childcare as a central design feature.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Reshma, you talk to mothers every day across the country. What are some of the themes that you’re hearing about their concerns and what would make a difference?
Reshma Saujani: Kunal’s right. I heard “childcare, childcare, childcare, childcare.” I just got a message from a midwife who works at a hospital in a state where if there is an incidence of COVID-19 in a daycare, the entire daycare shuts down. Her son is three years old, and this is now her fifth daycare closure and her fifth absence from work. So she got a note from her employer saying, “One more absence, and we’re going to have to let you go.” And she says, “I don’t know what to do. How am I having to pick between my child and my job because I don’t have affordable, reliable, open daycare?”
This is the number-one thing that I’m hearing from parents because, we have to remember, we are still in the pandemic. Yes, we are moving our way out of it, but there is still a lot of fear, a lot of things that create this instability in childcare. Women are saying to me, “The cost of my childcare has gone up by 30 percent, 40 percent, but I’m still making the same paycheck. How do I reconcile this? I need to work, and I can work in a job that can pay me a livable wage. But I’m being forced to have to downshift so I can take on some of that caretaking responsibility.”
Childcare is a precursor to being able to work. We have to see it as an economic issue and not your personal choice or your personal problem that you have to solve yourself.
This is a really big theme, which is why childcare is a precursor to being able to work. We have to see it as an economic issue and not your personal choice or your personal problem that you have to solve yourself.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Reshma, I want to explore intersectionality. There are some barriers that mothers of color, on average, face more than others. How do we improve outcomes for all moms?
Reshma Saujani: Seventy percent of Black women are not only the sole breadwinner but the sole care provider, so they’re facing this at both ends. This is why you’re seeing, in the latest job report, that the unemployment rates of Black women are still at a 50-year low. They have not recovered even as much as White and Asian women have. That is because they are still greatly affected by these childcare constraints. Because of COVID-19, they can’t bring in family members, who may contract the virus and get sick, to do some of that caretaking.
Also, many jobs don’t offer flexibility. You’re out of money if you work in retail and you have a 7 p.m. shift and you have a child and you’ve paid for a daycare or a babysitter to take care of your child and your shift is canceled. That scenario happens far more to women of color who find themselves in these hourly wage jobs, in retail, healthcare, and education, where they don’t have predictability. Women of color are also more likely to find themselves in “childcare deserts,” where they don’t have access to childcare. This issue is a huge concern for women of color and their labor market participation.
Kweilin Ellingrud: We’re releasing this podcast near Moms’ Equal Pay Day, which is in early May. It’s striking that mothers must work, on average, about four additional months to earn what a man did in the previous year. We’ve studied this gender pay gap globally and across the United States, but it’s even wider for working mothers. What are the barriers and other things that drive this gap in wages for mothers?
Reshma Saujani: This is what I find most fascinating. We’ve been talking for so long about the pay gap. As I was writing Pay Up, what I learned is that the pay gap is not about gender. It’s not even about care work. It’s about mothers and it’s about the “motherhood penalty.” Look at what’s happening right now. In 22 states, childless women are actually making more than men. But when you become a mom, oftentimes you may take time off from work because the vast majority of women don’t have paid leave. They have to take time off after they have a child, and within a year you can lose almost 40 percent of your income, which you then never recover. Even when it comes to how we evaluate mothers versus fathers, there’s a difference. When you become a mother we think, “Oh, you’re distracted, you’re not going to be as committed to your job, so we’re going to pay you less.” When you become a dad, we think, “Oh, he’s a caretaker now, we have to give him more money.”
If we eliminated the motherhood penalty, we actually would eliminate the pay gap. The problem is we’ve been chasing the pay gap as if it’s a gender gap, so we’ve been focused on the wrong thing. If we really focus on removing the bias that mothers face in both opportunity and pay, that will allow us to close the pay gap that we see in the workforce.
Kunal Modi: I’ll just add that the survey data, when we asked working parents, reinforced many of the points that Reshma made. We heard loud and clear there’s a set of challenges and barriers that working parents face in accessing childcare—its affordability, options that fit within a family’s budget. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that childcare not be more than 7 percent of a family’s income. But for most families, that’s not attainable currently when you look at the cost of center-based care or other options.
Another issue is how accessible are those childcare locations. Reshma alluded to the number of folks who live in childcare deserts. Fifty-nine percent of folks who live in rural communities live in a childcare desert by common definitions. The problem is how convenient those childcare options are. Do they align with your work schedule, with your kids’ school day? Can you get to childcare easily? Is it reliable? Is it going to be open every day that you need it? Will you get sufficient notice if, for some reason, it has to close? If that happens, is there a reliable backup option available to you? And, most importantly, is it of high quality? Is it educating the future of our country—our children—in all the ways that we would hope for and that our kids deserve while their parents are doing their part to contribute to our economy? There’s no silver-bullet solution, but there are certainly many things that can make a difference.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Reshma and Kunal, we dived into some of the data on the unique barriers that mothers face in the workforce. Now I’d like to shift to solutions. Reshma, let’s start with you. What can we do, right now, to promote genuine inclusion and the full participation of mothers in the workplace?
Reshma Saujani: The first thing is we’ve got to support women by helping them get childcare. We are in a childcare crisis, and in the pandemic it’s gone from bad to worse. For most families, childcare is the largest cost center. Most families spend more for their childcare than they pay for their mortgage. The industry is broken. We don’t have affordable, reliable, quality childcare. Without that, we simply can’t work.
I think while we’re waiting for Congress to grow a heart, the private sector can play a massive leadership role in this. Providing childcare is probably cheaper than the cost of the attrition rate that many of these companies are facing. Companies can do basic things like providing backup care and offering subsidies to support things like Care.com.3 If you have extra space, build a daycare center. This is the moment for you to think creatively. Don’t offer it just for your salaried employees; offer it for your hourly employees as well. This is a real opportunity and a real moment for employers to change the conversation when it comes to childcare and to make it an economic issue and not a personal problem that you have to solve yourself.
The second thing that I would encourage companies to do is think about how they give men incentives to take paid leave. I think about my own marriage. I married the guy that did the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry. Then, when we had my first son, Sean, I took my leave, and he didn’t. His to-do list shrunk because I knew where all the stuff was.
The ability for corporations and company policies to shift the gender ratio of the work that is done at home is enormous. Companies should think about how you implement policies like paid leave, how you incentivize men to take it, how you tie it to performance reviews or salaries, etcetera. It’s critical to tell men, “We want you to spend time taking care of your children, we want you to spend time at home.” On the back end, that means we’re going to get to equality faster.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Kunal, why is now the time for companies and leaders to act on solutions like childcare?
Kunal Modi: As you know, we’re in this moment that has become known as the great attrition or resignation. Many employees are voting with their feet and oftentimes not by choice, unfortunately. Nearly half of women who left the workforce during the pandemic cited childcare as one of the main reasons. This is a competitiveness issue for companies. Let’s remember who these working parents are. They’re oftentimes those rising-star, mid-tenure employees in critical managerial roles or critical individual-contributor roles. When they leave the workforce, organizations suffer from a loss of the institutional knowledge they had, their managerial capabilities, the mentorship that they provided to young people entering the workforce. This is really central to how companies are going to sustain the performance that they all aspire to.
In our survey, a majority of women said that better childcare support would make them more likely to choose an employer that offered it. So as employers are thinking about winning the war for talent, childcare can be one of those critical differentiators. Parents offered a range of solutions for companies to consider to support them with their childcare needs. Affordability always helps, but making childcare more accessible, convenient, and high quality is also essential. Beyond simply subsidies, which are important, parents said that they value the convenience of on-site care. They value flexible stipends for last-minute backup care in that moment of truth at 6:45 a.m., when your childcare solution falls through, or more flexible hours for your schedule to meet the needs of both your work and your family. If there’s anything the pandemic taught us, it’s that work isn’t working for working families right now.
This is a moment when companies need to think about childcare as more than just tweaking the edges of your employee value proposition. This is about fundamentally rewriting the relationship with employees in a way that works better for them. It’s also going to work better for companies, in their own economic competitiveness.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Let’s talk specifically about some of the solutions that you’ve proposed in the Marshall Plan for Moms. Reshma, can you tell us a bit more about what the plan is and what it suggests?
Reshma Saujani: I founded the Marshall Plan for Moms because I saw that women were in crisis. It felt like World War II’s bombed-out cities because you have the opportunity for the government and the private sector to step up and make real change. The Marshall Plan for Moms, in many ways, started as a conversation with my PTA4 moms. “What do you need to go back to work?” We heard the same things: “I need affordable childcare, I need paid leave, I need schools to open up safely, I need cash payments to value my unpaid labor.”
This began as a push to the administration: “As you think about what you should do for your first 100 days, remember that moms cannot be America’s social-safety net and that they need bailing out. If we’re going to bail out airlines, we need to bail out moms. We’re really pushing Congress and pushing Washington and pushing states to do right on paid leave and affordable childcare and the child tax credit. I’m not very hopeful that change is going to be made in government this year. But moms can’t wait, so we feel like the opportunity for the Marshall Plan for Moms really exists in the private sector. We need to start building private-sector strategies that can fix the workplace so you don’t have to choose between having a job and being a mom.
Pay Up has outlined some of those strategies, so that when we talk about the future of work, it’s not all about robots and technology. It’s really about what the future of work would look like so that it works for everyone, including moms. When I built Girls Who Code, I started by going to refugee camps and the poorest communities. I said, “If I can build a program that teaches a girl who doesn’t have Wi-Fi, doesn’t have a device, I can teach anybody.” Same thing for workplaces. Unfortunately, we built the workplace for a guy who had a stay-at-home partner at home. We should have built the workplace for a single mom, a woman of color, who doesn’t have adequate support. The pandemic has given us a redo, and we should take it.
Again, part of that is really pushing to say, “Why is the school day 8 to 3 and the workday 9 to 5? Why do we pay for freezing eggs, but we don’t pay for childcare? Why are we so against flexibility or predictability, when that will help support families juggling their parenting and caretaking roles with their jobs?”
We’ve already seen that supporting mental health means that workers will be more productive, more committed. Let’s invest in that. We should be telling moms, “You don’t have to breastfeed in closets. You don’t have to apologize when you have to take your kid to a doctor’s appointment. You can ask for the things that you need. Right now, you have power and you have leverage because companies are desperate for talent, and that means they’re desperate for you too.”
Kweilin Ellingrud: Kunal, you’ve led McKinsey’s support of the Marshall Plan for Moms now for a while. Why are you passionate about this?
Kunal Modi: First, it’s just the right thing to do and, second, I’ve experienced it in my everyday life. As I mentioned, my wife and I are the parents of two young daughters, a four-year-old and a two-year-old. Even with all the many privileges we have, we struggle to go through this. We can only imagine the challenges that working families go through day to day.
I’m really passionate about creating a workplace that works better for all of us—for our experience as employees contributing the things that we’re passionate about at work and as parents, so we can be the parents we all aspire to be for our kids. We should design the workplaces that parents deserve so they can pursue their passions, both at work and in the home. This is really personal, and it’s really critical to the future of our country. I’m proud that we’ve been able to do this work with the Marshall Plan for Moms.
We should design the workplaces that parents deserve so they can pursue their passions, both at work and in the home.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Help me paint a picture of what this looks like when we’re successful. How can improving outcomes for moms through childcare drive more sustainable and inclusive growth for everyone?
Reshma Saujani: In many ways it allows us to finish the fight once and for all. The silver lining of COVID-19, despite so much unimaginable loss, is that it allowed us to see that from a feminist perspective—a gender equality perspective—we were focused on the wrong things. Women have always been qualified: they’re 72 percent of valedictorians and 57 percent of college degrees and the majority of PhDs and master’s degrees. We’re losing women in the middle. The pipeline is leaky when we become mothers, not because we’re choosing to stay at home, but because it becomes untenable to be a mother and have a job. If we can fix that motherhood penalty, the motherhood bias, we’re going to get equality faster and to have a more realistic opportunity to solve this problem once and for all.
Kweilin Ellingrud: We’re wrapping each of our Future of America podcasts with a rapid-fire Q&A. Reshma, you’re going to be up first, and then we’ll go to Kunal. Is there a book or article you’ve read recently that excites you about a more sustainable and inclusive future?
Reshma Saujani: Anything by McKinsey. I’m not joking, I’m serious. When I built Girls Who Code, McKinsey did my five-year plan. Everyone always says, “How did you build this amazing organization?” And I’m like, “McKinsey.” Here, at the beginning of my next movement, being able to work with this incredible organization in solving this problem allows you to bring clarity and sharpness and data to solving complex problems. That’s critical. So anything you put out, I read because “OK, the answer lies here.”
Kweilin Ellingrud: We’ll bring you back for a future podcast, thank you. In all seriousness though, what makes you optimistic about a future with sustainable and inclusive growth?
Reshma Saujani: My girls, my own girls and my Girls Who Code. When I look at them and I see the problems that they want to solve, I see their resilience. I see their commitment. I see their empathy. I always say, “Girls will save us, they will heal us, they will lead us. We are in good hands.”
Kweilin Ellingrud: What’s the one thing listeners can do today to drive sustainable and inclusive growth?
Reshma Saujani: I would pick one thing to advocate. We have to realize that we have an opportunity. We can have control, especially in this moment when there are so many open jobs and so much opportunity. We can have control over our work life and over our lives at work. So you should pick one thing that you want to advocate and commit to doing so.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Kunal, over to you. What’s a book or an article you’ve read recently that excites you about a more sustainable and inclusive future?
Kunal Modi: Well, of course, I’m going to say Pay Up by our friend Reshma here. It is a wonderful book and a real call to action. I would recommend that everyone check it out. It certainly has shaped and informed my thinking, and I’ve been thinking about these topics for years. It really challenged the way I saw things.
I’ll also recommend one more: Think Again by Adam Grant. I’m sure many of our listeners have checked it out. In particular, the notion of always being in learning mode is going to be really important over these next couple years as we think about how we create inclusive workplaces that are a real step change from what we had before the pandemic.
Kweilin Ellingrud: What makes you optimistic about a future where we can achieve sustainable and inclusive growth?
Kunal Modi: The conversations that I’ve been in and hearing from leaders across organizations are really different this time around. There’s a recognition among leaders that COVID-19 was a real wake-up call for all of us, not only how we manage our organizations, but how we live our lives. Folks are asking questions like “What is my role in contributing to a more sustainable future? What type of workplace do I want to create for my employees that allows them to thrive?” The nature of the conversation is different. There is a boldness brewing that we can tap into right now.
Kweilin Ellingrud: So inspiring. What’s the one thing that listeners can do today to help promote sustainable and inclusive growth?
Kunal Modi: If you’re in a position of influence in your organization and you’re thinking about how you redesign workplaces to work for working parents, start by talking to them. Survey your employees. Take an inventory of their needs. One of the things that really stood out to me from the research that we did was the degree to which the solutions came from parents themselves. Parents know what works for them, and these won’t always be found in the traditional list of interventions in the HR playbook. Take the time to survey working parents and how their thoughts have evolved through the pandemic, and you’ll be surprised by the number of solutions that you uncover.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Thank you both for joining us today.
Reshma Saujani: Thank you for having us.
Kunal Modi: Thank you so much.
Kweilin Ellingrud: That was Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code and the founder and CEO of the Marshall Plan for Moms, and Kunal Modi, a partner in McKinsey’s Bay Area office. I’m Kweilin Ellingrud. You’ve been listening to McKinsey’s Future of America podcast series. Thank you for joining us.