International Women's Day may be a time to celebrate the achievements of women across the globe and reflect on the progress we've made. And, indeed, there are many amazing women to celebrate. During bedtime just this past week, my daughters and I read about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's life story in her book, Turning Pages. But today -- and all the days of the year -- we need to address how employers must do better to support working moms.
At the end of September last year, I had one of my most meaningful experiences as a CEO of a startup company:
I opened an email from a colleague who had joined us just a few months earlier and was transitioning into a different role than the one she was hired for (welcome to startup life). She was asking for five minutes to speak. I'll admit, I braced for the worst. I had no context, only an unexpected request to connect and the understanding that her role had recently changed. Was she having a bad experience with the new role? The company? Had something serious happened?
As it turns out, she wanted to tell me she was pregnant with her first baby. I was absolutely overjoyed when she shared the news, and I let her know that with a hug. I've since come to find out that she was anxious leading up to our interaction, unsure of how it would be perceived for an employee to take parental leave within nine months of beginning a new role at a startup.
I get why she felt that way. I've felt that way too, with my own pregnancies. In fact, I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter after I had accepted a new job that I had not yet started. I've had four babies now, and I find it shocking that we live in a world where something like 10,000 women a day tell their bosses they are pregnant -- but it's something riled with fear and frustration and unknown outcomes. How can something as ordinary as pregnancy be such a fraught topic in the workplace in 2020?
My company, the Riveter, is built upon the belief that equity of opportunity for all working women is a priority. As a mother who worked for years in corporate America and started a business with babies at home, I know firsthand the struggles of navigating a world that has been built by and for men, and the discrimination that women, and especially working mothers, face in professional settings.
At the root of gender bias is the very basic fact that women bear children. I'm not telling you anything novel here, but stick with me. Given that our society has traditionally assigned women primary caregiving responsibilities, and continues to regardless of whether an individual woman chooses to have children, employers default to considering her a liability, and thus are more likely to hire, promote, and invest in male employees when given the choice.
The false judgment that having children weakens mothers' commitment and performance in the workplace is downright harmful and not backed by scientific research. It is workplace discrimination, and it can take implicit or explicit forms, directly impacting a woman's ability to be treated and paid fairly.
As a business leader, I have made it my mission to champion working parenthood. This starts with implementing policies that work for parents. The Riveter's parental leave policy does not require you to be at your job for at least a year before you qualify for leave -- you qualify as soon as you're hired. And every employee parent is granted 16 weeks paid leave at 100 percent of their salary. We also have flexible work policies and unlimited paid time off.
But we can pass legislation and enact workplace policies to protect women, and we should, but true and lasting change will not happen until we change attitudes. It is not enough to protect working parenthood; our culture should celebrate it.
As of today, our company of just two and a half years has welcomed three babies, all girls (very on brand). By the end of the year, that number will have climbed to seven. I am proud and blown away by everything our small and mighty team has accomplished since I founded the Riveter, and that's because of, not despite, the fact that our employees are able to prioritize growing their families while we grow this business.
In an era where women make up half the workforce, where women start businesses at five times the rate of men, it's more important than ever to address these inequalities. And if businesses truly want to thrive, they must create supportive policies and environments to welcome new humans into this world.
Motherhood bias punishes working women for having children by inhibiting both their professional progress and their lifetime earning potential. By pushing for progressive workplace policies that further equality in the workplace, helping to evolve workplace culture, and, yes, advocating for ourselves and celebrating parenthood, working mothers and their allies can confront maternal penalties head-on.
Employers can begin actively working to do away with workplace discrimination and systemic bias, by putting into practice systems that don't penalize working moms for their life choices and demonstrating an understanding of the pressure that working mothers face.
This includes allowing open and honest conversations about changing needs and expectations when employees embark on their journey to motherhood, establishing systems that create an empathetic work environment, and including policies that provide more paid parental leave, job flexibility, equal pay, and fair opportunities for promotion.
The relationship between motherhood and work is one of the trickiest balancing acts there is for women. But if we come together, share our stories, and encourage others to hold themselves accountable, we can reframe motherhood and combat workplace discrimination.