Activist Reshma Saujani: ‘Women are in the worst state that we’ve ever been’

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You argue in your new book that the pandemic exposed all the hidden work, domestic work, done by women, and that we now have this once-in-a-generation opportunity to change that.

Covid blew the doors off recognizing that workplaces have never been built for [working mothers] — and 86 percent of women in the workforce will, at some time, be a mother. And we’ve always been operating on this proverbial seesaw — balancing our home life, balancing our career life. Always trying to shrink ourselves to fit in.

And this is personal to me because I spent the past decade of my life telling girls to basically storm the board room. Be the girl boss and lean in your way to the top. That is just simply not true. The truth is that we participate and live in a society that has always asked us to hide our motherhood. It never mattered how many leadership courses we took, how much we learned how to code, right? Having it all was always a euphemism for doing it all.

When did that begin to sink in for you?

I started 2020 as CEO of Girls Who Code — on top of the world. You know, we had a Super Bowl ad. I had just had a newborn baby via surrogate. And I was really looking forward to taking my maternity leave, spending time with Sai because I didn’t carry him, so really looking forward to just being with him. And then covid happened. And I found myself, when my son was a few weeks old, having to go back to work, having to home-school my kindergartner, and having to save my nonprofit. And as I looked on my Zoom screen with my leadership team, which was mostly all moms of young children, at the end of the night, I was just done. And so were they. So many of us were saying, Well, when the schools open in the fall, we can go back to figuring out what our KPIs [key performance indicators] are, right? Everything will be okay. So many of us were just muscling through to September. And then I got an email from [my son’s] principal saying: Congratulations, we’ve come up with this thing called hybrid learning. And guess what, working mom? You’re going to get to Zoom in your kid at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, all while you maintain your full-time job.

That’s when we started to see the 11 million women be pushed out of the workforce — that December jobs report where almost all the jobs lost were women and women of color. And I kept thinking to myself, Where’s the plan? I think the school thing was so gutting because I naively thought that someone was going to email me and ask me, “Reshma, do you have the time to do this?” It was an assumption. And because we had just already spent March to September, we knew that the vast majority of unpaid labor that’s schooling was being done by mothers. It’s untenable. So I started writing an op-ed called “The Marshall Plan for Moms,” being, like, here’s what my PTA moms think that we need: We need cash. We need paid leave. We need affordable child care. We need retraining for moms whose jobs were automated through the pandemic — in retail, health care, education. And that op-ed blew up. We followed it up with a full-page ad in the New York Times. I think it just ignited a conversation that many of us were having in the privacy of our own homes while crying ourselves to sleep at night. Recognizing that we have been treated as America’s social safety net. This country would have literally fallen had it not been for us. And no one seemed to really care that we were being pushed out.

I was filled with so much frickin’ anger. Like, women are in the worst state that we’ve ever been, from how we’ve been pushed out of the job market, to our reproductive rights, to our mental health. And so I’d wake up every day mad, and just wanting to change it. And that is what inspired me to write this book and to build this movement and to really start focusing on workplaces. Because women have been sold this big lie. We have been made to feel like it’s our fault if our partners are not doing enough. If I can’t raise my hand for that promotion. If the government doesn’t give me paid leave or affordable child care. Covid laid bare how fundamentally broken our workplaces have always been. And that we had never, ever had a shot at getting to 50 percent of anything, right? Until we fix this broken structure.

So if you were to go back to your earlier days of Girls Who Code and “Brave, Not Perfect” and evangelizing the feminist, have-it-all mythology, what would you say to yourself?

I would say I was wrong. When I would speak to thousands of women, and during the Q&A session someone would raise their hand and say, “Miss Saujani, how do you balance life and work?” I would literally wave my hand; the question annoyed me. I was, like, no, don’t worry about that. Because I had bought into the big lie.

And for my first child, I tried to fit it into the narrative of doing everything and not complaining about it. After years of fertility problems and more miscarriages than I can count, I may have seen my son an hour a day. I missed my first son crawling, walking, bath time. I thought that that was the price that I had to pay for equality. I think a lot of us do.

Given that these are systemic issues, how do you go about making change?

With the “Great Resignation,” every CEO I know is facing a talent war. And the vast majority of those quitting are women, right? So it’s like: Never waste a great crisis. We have a once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally fix workplaces.

I talk about nine things in my book, but let’s focus on three. The first is subsidizing child care. We have no problem offering free museum memberships. We spend more money helping women freeze their eggs than supporting them with child care.

The second thing is about paid leave and gender-neutral paid leave policies. There are still companies that don’t have gender-neutral paid leave policies. The private sector and corporate America have to recognize the role that they play in exacerbating gender inequality at home. You know, before I had children, my husband cooked, cleaned, did everything. And then we had a baby. And I was home. And so I became the person who packed the diaper bag, who packed the groceries, who made the pediatrician appointments, got out the splinters. My to-do list got bigger, and his got smaller. And I think that this is the narrative that most women talk about that have a partner. Not to mention the three out of 10 American families that are run by single mothers that don’t have actually that support.

The third thing is mothers are in mental health crisis. Fifty-one percent of moms report more anxiety and depression. The CDC just came out with a study, and the two subgroups that are suffering the most post-pandemic is 18- to 24-year-olds and mothers. So companies have to start thinking not just about our output, but our mental health. I don’t think that we are appreciating the burnout that women feel right now.

You also talk about monthly payments to moms — that probably produces more of a reaction.

Oh, yes. [Laughs.] I think having a conversation about why we feel so uncomfortable about paying moms is really important. And why we have not valued our unpaid labor. I mean, women are doing 2½ jobs right now. And we always want to forget or pretend that they’re not doing that other job. We have a very gendered view on who should be doing that unpaid labor, who should be doing the housework. So having that conversation is really important. From a policy perspective, we’re having it around the child tax credit right now [with] Mitt Romney and Joe Manchin about why the child tax credit should be tied to working. Now, what are they saying when they’re saying that? They’re saying basically that your unpaid labor is not really work. That’s wrong.

How do you get people to actually value this unpaid work?

It’s happening across other nations. There’s parental income in the United Kingdom, in Norway. And part of it is moms saying, “Yes, this is work.” This cognitive labor of doing the cooking and the cleaning, the laundry, the pediatrician is actually work that should be valued. And a lot of people today, after covid, say, “Yep, that is work.”

And you juxtapose that with the fact that we have the lowest birthrate in the history of our nation. Because childless women and men look at us and say, “No, thank you,” right? It’s too expensive; we’re not going to do it. And a country that has a dying birthrate is a country that’s failing. And so, quite frankly, every politician should say, “Hey, we have got to incentivize being a parent in this country.” It’s sad that we’ve bailed out airlines, but we can’t bail out moms. It’s sad in this moment that both Democrats and Republicans, with everything that is happening to women, still can’t get it together and do something.

With paid parental leave struck from Build Back Better [legislation], what possibilities do you see given the political realities these days?

I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for Congress to do the right thing. I’m not waiting anymore. And moms can’t wait anymore. We’re going to have to find solutions outside of the system. I actually have more faith that the private sector will start providing subsidized child care. And we need to do it in a way that makes sure that restaurant workers and health-care workers and teachers get it, too; it can’t just be something for the woman who’s sitting in the corner office. You read about the woman who was working at a pizza parlor. Left her kids in her apartment, and then got arrested for endangerment. Parents, mothers, are having to make unconscionable choices right now because the system is rigged against us. We have to get it for all of us.

And how optimistic are you that moms across the political spectrum can come together and see this as a shared issue?

You know, moms should be much more concerned about paid leave and affordable child care than quite frankly, [protesting] critical race theory. I think that the Republicans have really done a great job in distracting moms. Because I think most moms are angry about their current situation, and there’s bipartisan support for paid leave, for affordable child care, for the child tax credit. There is consensus among moms of all political backgrounds and stripes that we need help.

So we have a moment to demand change. Because companies are feeling very vulnerable right now in terms of talent. And as powerless as we feel, people are kind of afraid of moms. And doing wrong by them. And there’s a huge moment for allyship. I actually think we want the same thing that dads want. We want the same things that young women want. We want the same thing that everybody wants, right? Which is not to be penalized for our choices.

And I feel inspired right now [because] in the chaos, in this moment of the Great Resignation, the moment of the talent wars, I do feel like a lot of moms have woken up. For so long, we thought: Well, this is my problem. My shame. Maybe my partner’s not doing enough. Maybe I’m not making it happen at work. Maybe it’s me. And I think we realize, No, no, no, no. It’s not you. It’s 40 million of us having the exact same experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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