Courtesy Reshma Saujani

Covid brought to the forefront issues that have long affected caregivers in the workplace—a lack of flexibility, inadequate leave policies, high cost of child care, and work cultures hostile to the responsibilities of caregiving.

Charter this week published a new playbook for organizations, leaders, and individuals to make the specific changes needed to workplaces so parents and families can thrive. (You can access that for free here.)

One expert who we interviewed for the playbook is Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms. Saujani last December in an op-ed called for a new White House task force to implement plans to support working mothers, including monthly payments, pay equity, and affordable child care. The Marshall Plan for Moms is a coalition pursuing those goals, which earlier this year released its own guide to building mom-friendly workplaces.

Here is a transcript of our interview with Saujani earlier this month, edited for clarity:

What's your elevator pitch for making change?

My elevator pitch for making change is that it's long overdue and we had never built workforces that worked for moms. Covid showed us that the structure of motherhood is breaking, if not broken, and we have to re-imagine motherhood once and for all, because America doesn't work without its moms.

What should employers be doing differently for working parents now?

When millennials were coming to the workplace, we got out the popcorn and the pinball machines, we built workplaces to support them. And we never did that for moms. We actually have an opportunity to get a second bite of that apple, fixing your culture when it didn't work for moms. So maybe it will now. Every company should take advantage of that.

The big a-ha of the report was that there's no smoking gun. There's no secret thing that we discovered. It's all the stuff that we should have been doing a long time ago. Over the past year, just as an activist, my big aha was that, wow, we spent so much time thinking about strategies to get to gender equality in the workplace, like get a sponsor, find a mentor, fix the pay gap, teach more women to code—but the reality is that unless you have gender equality in the home, you'll never have gender equality in the workplace. What is the role of companies in that conversation? Are you going to exacerbate my gender equality at home or are you going to help me get to 50-50? A classic example of that is paid leave. Not to get too into my marriage, but when Nihal and I were first married before we had kids, we certainly had 50-50, and then we had Sean and everything shifted. And everything's shifted because I took my maternity leave and he didn't. So we never had those moments in the very beginning of being a married couple with a newborn baby to negotiate well, who's taking out the diapers, who's buying the groceries, who's making the puree—it all became me.

So we set the standard for the division of domestic and child caring from the beginning and it never changed. I like many women found themselves trying to do 120% at work all the while doing 86% of the work happening at home. His company is at fault for that, right? Because we have companies that love to tout that they offer paid leave. Well, who's taking it? But then they gaslight men when they want to take it. I mean, I'm sorry, like a Goldman Sachs. It is known that if you take paid leave, you are not becoming a managing director. Period. And so we have to change the hypocrisy there and have companies actually acknowledge the role they play in creating this gender division at home.

So not only offering parental leave, but actually making it possible for men....

It should be tied to performance. Literally every company should have to report what percentage of dads took it and for how long. The average right now is 70% of American dads take less than 10 days off. I mean, come on, three of those days are in the hospital. Norway is a really great example of this—they mandated it and it shifted everything. Because I think men want to take it. They want to be with their kids too. But we haven't created that corporate cultural environment. My takeaway is you do not get a bozo button for just offering paid leave. Sorry—I want more.

Are there other examples of specific things that employers could be doing?

The big thing, especially in this moment as the Delta variant is happening, is we're not recognizing that nothing has changed for moms. I'm still not sure if my schools are going to open. I still have disparate child care. I still am fully anticipating that my schools are going to be open and shut, open, and shut, and I'm going to have to figure it out and rearrange. My life is going to look very similar to how it did last year, and I'm devastated about that. Companies have not said a thing about it and they're just like, oh, everyone's coming back to work. Well guess what: more than 50% of daycare centers are still shut down. And school protocols haven't changed from last year.

That's one of the things that came out in our report. Women in white collar jobs said 'I need flexibility. And I need flexibility that doesn't put me into being a second-class citizen.’ Whatever you're going to put forth, everyone's got to do it. So you can't do a wink, wink, nod, nod. The narrative is still, people don't want to come to work because they don't want to work. That is just simply not true. We have to change that narrative and we have to offer flexibility, and we have to design it in a way that creates equality, and doesn't exacerbate inequality.

If I need to take flexibility because my kids' schools are closed and I am phoning in on Zoom and everybody else is in the office. And I know what you're already thinking about me, that I'm not committed to my job. So it's designing flexibility in a way that creates equality. Recognizing that first for shift workers, that it's about predictability. For low-wage workers that work in retail, healthcare, etc., what we do there is say, 'Great, Nancy, you have to work five to seven or five to 12.' I then pay for child care that I already can't afford, show up to work and 'Oh, sorry, your shift is canceled.' Guess what? I'm now out money because I had to pay for my child care and I'm not making money from my shift. That to me is such an easy solvable problem. We used Walmart as an example—they've built an app that allow people to switch schedules with one another. But we have to recognize that those workers need predictability. It's critical, especially acknowledging that 80% of Black moms are not only single moms, but they're single breadwinners and they're single caretakers. If we can solve the problem for her, then we can solve it for everybody.

What are you telling parents right now in this time of uncertainty?

I'm telling them to start organizing and to start pushing and finding allies. I actually think what was interesting about this report and other data that we did is that people with no kids want the exact same thing we want. Everybody wants the same thing, but people are afraid to demand that from their employers. I don't also want to put the onus on moms. Employers know what's up and they have to be held responsible for not rising to the occasion. They need to be held responsible for that.

Are there specific strategies or actions you recommend to support mothers of color specifically?

In particular, the point about predictability was really important. For Black and Latina moms, that was a big deal for them.

We're now imagining a return to workplaces that when it happens has hybrid configurations and flexible schedules. Are those net positive for working parents?

It depends. For me personally I want a little bit of flexibility. But I also like having spaces where I can actually think and breathe and I don't have my one-year-old and my six year old around me. But that's me and my choice. And I live in New York City—everyone's fighting for their Zoom space in my house. I appreciate being able to go to an office. But for the first six years of my son's life, I saw him for an hour a day because I was never home. And now with my baby, I did things for him that I just never did for my first, like bathed him.

Because I was home for bath time or fed him breakfast or got to play with him. I never saw my first son take his first steps because I wasn't there. I feel like I've really got to be there. I also think it's recognizing that at different stages, moms need different things. I'm a mom of young kids, so my needs are very different. Giving moms who just had children the flexibility in the beginning is really important because then they don't have that guilt their entire life because they feel like, 'Okay, I did it.'.

Here in the United States, if you take one year off, you get a 40% pay dock for your rest of your life. In Norway, a lot of people take two years off and they can seamlessly go in and out of the workforce. It's one of our other recommendations: we have lots of off-ramps for moms and not a lot of on-ramps. Returnships are the one thing we've been talking about for like a decade. But we need to come up with other ways of bringing moms back to work. I see it just as an opportunity—I'd rather hire a mom over anybody, anytime of the day. Because I know she's good with her time. I know she's efficient. I know she's a hard worker. I know she can balance a million things.

We've had the largest exodus of women leaving the labor market in the history of our nation. I have not seen anything from companies, nothing, nothing. The plan, the tasks force, the committees—where are they? In other moments of crisis, I have seen companies come together and do something about a problem. When we've had school shootings, people gathered and said, what are we going to do about this? I just find it very interesting that they're not kind of coming together in a real way. Even in this moment with the Delta variant.

What are the next steps for your policy agenda?

We're basically building the largest organization of moms to fight for moms' issues. We are figuring out how we want to play and push existing things that we're fighting for. What I mean by that is we do a lot on the child tax credit and telling the stories of moms and what the child tax credit means for them, what they're going do with that money, what they're going to do with those resources. We're working with a couple of organizations to put together a phone bank. People are phoning their congressperson, saying why we want the reconciliation bill to pass. Part of it is waiting to see what happens and what we get. But regardless, I don't think that the conversation ends there.

Going back to companies, I think companies should be subsidizing child care. If they're paying to freeze your eggs, why are they not paying for your child care? I don't think we're going to get everything that we need in that bill, nor should we. We're still kind of figuring out, well, what is it that we need and want? What can we ask for?

Are you seeing a lot of actual change at organizations?

I don't know yet. I'm not seeing it, but again, I don't know if I'm not seeing what I would think I would see. But I'm not seeing it. I am seeing a lot of innovation and companies starting to solve the care problem. I'm seeing the ecosystem of innovation being built around this. But in the return-to-work policies that companies are laying out, there's no mom policy there like, 'I see you. This is what we're doing to bring our moms back.'

There's a lot of pressure on the private sector right now because of the failings of institutions around mental health and child care. It seems like even companies that instituted subsidies during pandemic, they're really quietly going away. Like you said earlier, are things just going back to normal?

That's what they feel like they have to do. And then to drive a hard line of everyone come back to work and 'we're not going to offer the same things that we offered before.' What we're going to find, my prediction is, our labor market participation [for women] is back where it was 1989. If you actually went to your office, people would be shocked at how few women are there now. You would tangibly be able to see the lack of women. I don't think people recognize it yet because we're still on our little Zoom screens. But it's pretty shocking. Everyone I talk to is trying to hire talented senior women and can't find them. I feel like we're going to wake up a year from now, two years down the road and we're gonna have all these programs, I'm going to have more money than I know what to do with to solve this. We're going to have all of these programs and be like, 'Oh, how do we get the women back?' When we had a moment to do it now. We know women essentially say that if you give me predictability, and flexibility, 79% of them will go back to work. But then the longer you stay out of the workforce, the harder it is to get back. So this is the moment.

Ten years from now—or the workplace that your kids inherit—what do you think it'll look like for working parents?

I think that the hustle is dead. I don't think we're going back to how we were a year ago. I think we're not going to have that same work like a dog nine to five, you don't see your kids, they're in daycare all the time. It's going to change. I don't think people want to work that way. They want to work differently. With technology, I think it's inevitable. But I don't think it's fair that if you're really rich, you get to have flexibility. And if you're really poor, then you get to have none of that. You have to outsource your child care to everybody. We have to answer this question in a way that allows anybody, regardless of their race, regardless of their social economic status, to have time to take care of their children in a humane way. One of the things that's the layered on top of this is a declining birth rate. People don't want to have kids because it's too expensive. It's too hard and that's just not good for society.

How do you think about the "have it all" idea for women?

It's part of the problem. I'm writing a whole book about this. It's called Pay Up. I think corporate feminism led us astray, the big lie that you could have at all. For so many of us, we've been living this lie. We married these feminist husbands, who we love, and we're still doing a bulk of the domestic labor. And that's our shame. Like corporate feminism says, you can't tell everybody—that's your problem. You didn't train your husband. Well, right. But now that we were all locked up with them in Covid, we all realize that we're all experiencing the exact same thing. Whether you are Black, white, rich, or poor, you're doing it all, all the while you're trying to go get the corner office. The reason why you get burnt out, the reason why it will never work ever—you can lean until you fall on your face. We will never ever get to parity in the corner office unless we fix what's happening in our homes. Period. That is not even my husband's problem—it's society's problem. Society has created this sense that fatherhood has to be this way and motherhood has to be this way. We've had a slight re-invention of fatherhood, in that men are proud of their caretaking and love to post it on Instagram. We applaud them for it. We celebrate it, even if some of it's performative for social media, but not actually what's happening. For motherhood, we have not shifted the martyrdom. When we had a racial reckoning in this country, people of color and their white allies demanded that things change. Demanded it.

That is not happening right now. Moms are not demanding that things change because we feel like motherhood is a choice. So this is my personal problem. My issues are my personal problem. It's not up to my workplaces to fix that. And that's just not true. We have to shift the way that we think of our role and what we deserve. That's the work that we're doing that is deeply cultural. It's a fricking gnarly problem. It is deeply cultural, quite frankly, in the way that 10 years ago, STEM was not cool for girls at all. We just had to deliberately thoughtfully change culture. We need to do the same thing with motherhood.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to be alerted to interviews like this by email.