If you need an optimism bump as 2019 gets underway, take a few moments to ponder the following sentence: This June will mark just 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in the United States. Just over a year later, the amendment was ratified. In the span of a single human lifetime, American women have seen phenomenal social, political, and economic progress. A century ago, women were denied fundamental civil rights and generally considered to be unfit for long-term participation in the economy, but there are now 127 female members of Congress (the most in U.S. history), 74 million women in the labor force, and 12.3 million female-owned businesses (40 percent of the total).

This isn't the story of American women - it's the story of America. The empowerment of women has been good for everyone - unshackling the creative and productive capacity of half the population was a prerequisite for the United States to become a fully developed country. But this is why it's essential to recognize that we still have a long way to go. Ultimately, we need to stop talking about these problems as women's issues. These are problems our society faces, and they reveal how anachronistic many of our laws and business practices still are when it comes to balancing the demands (and joys) of home and work.

Make your business female and family friendly

A recent Brookings Institution report summarized a few of the barriers American workers and families face, including the expectation that employees will work soul-crushing hours, the lack of national paid maternity leave, the choices women often have to make between professional development and child care, and the widespread lack of access to paid sick leave.

Employees and entrepreneurs are often forced to make excruciating decisions between their professional lives and their families, but this status quo will only last as long as we allow it to.

In 2012, Sarah-Jane Kurtini co-founded Tinybeans: a photo sharing, journaling, and milestone tracking app that allows parents to capture precious moments as their kids grow up. But this isn't the only way in which Tinybeans is building a culture rooted in family. Despite the fact that Kurtini was constantly told she wouldn't be able to work part-time as a co-founder (which she wanted to do so she could spend more time with her children) that's exactly what she did. Kurtini's co-founder Stephen O'Young supported her decision to work part-time, and the naysayers don't have much to say now: Tinybeans has 3 million users in more than 170 countries.

Jen Auerbach is the co-founder of Clary Collection, an international organic skin care company born out of both necessity and her transition into motherhood. "We were two mothers who couldn't find the type of clean products we wanted for ourselves or our families, so we created it." With the blessing of her husband, Auerbach turned their Nashville, Tennessee backyard barn into a stylish headquarters for Clary. Along with her co-founder, singer-songwriter Adriel Denae (who lives in Appleton, Wisconsin), they run the business virtually while fitting in creative endeavors, motherhood, marriage, and family.

Many large corporations are rejecting the work vs. family status quo as well, such as Ernst & Young, MetLife, and Etsy, which have all implemented programs to help mothers handle maternity leave, as well as the process of returning to work. Companies need to adopt policies that make it possible for employees to have richer and more fulfilling lives at home and on the job, and there are more and more examples of how this can be done.

Using technology to rethink the way we work

Over 100 million memories have been saved on Tinybeans, and they've been shared all around the world. Kurtini has lived in Australia, Britain, and the United States, so she has used the app to keep friends and family updated on what's happening in her kids' lives, no matter how far away they happen to be.

When you consider how fundamentally technology has changed the way we interact with one another, doesn't it seem odd that so many companies still insist on cramming people into offices to do work that could, in many cases, be done remotely?

The opportunities for remote work are particularly significant to parents who want to spend more time with their kids, but don't want to pause their careers or abandon their educational ambitions. From cloud-based productivity tools like Slack and Google Docs to the increasing availability of online degrees and certifications, workers have never been able to get so much done at home - or wherever they want.  

This is why Tinybeans has established a results-oriented culture that gives employees the flexibility to work remotely when they have personal obligations. The company also provides employees with generous paid leave, coordinates meetings to accommodate shifting schedules, and allows parents to bring kids to work when they're not in school (even including them in videos and photo shoots for the company's social media channels).

Americans are also increasingly doing freelance work, which can give them more flexibility to spend time with their families and supplement their income. Meanwhile, more and more women are going into business for themselves - between 2007 and 2018, the number of female-owned companies jumped by 58 percent, while the number of total new businesses only increased by 12 percent. Companies should be paying close attention to these trends - not only do they demonstrate that employees don't have to be handcuffed to desks to be productive, but they're also helping workers see that many of the traditional work-life sacrifices aren't laws of nature.

Necessity can inspire innovation and progress

It makes sense that the Women's Suffrage movement in the U.S. finally succeeded just a year after the end of World War I. Women were an integral part of the war economy, working in munitions factories, on farms, and wherever else they were needed. This gave them an even stronger argument for full political rights - if women were vital to the defense of the country, surely they deserved to have their voices heard at the ballot box.  

While the situation for American women and families is vastly different today, there's one striking parallel: Now that women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce (a proportion that shot up from less than 30 percent in 1950), it's clearer than ever that they're an indispensable economic force. As the aforementioned Brookings report notes: "Barriers to participation by women also act as brakes on the national economy, stifling the economy's ability to grow. The lives and fortunes of women in the workplace affect us all."

Adds Auerbach: "The boom of female run businesses and the current projection of the female voice gives strength to all women now, and the young girls of our future. I am proud to be a full time working mother with the support of my husband, extended family, and friends.

Men and women in the early 20th century realized that the status quo simply wasn't working anymore, and they're coming to a similar realization today. The United States has long been an outlier on its failure to respect the needs of working parents and families, but the powerful economic and social forces pushing against this status quo have become too great to resist. Change is necessary, and your company should be yet another reason why it's inevitable.

Published on: Jan 16, 2019
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