Shelley Zalis and Reshma Saujani on How We’re Failing Our Moms

Reshma Saujani, Shelley Zalis

Reshma Saujani; Shelley Zalis

“We have to shift the culture around motherhood.”

On Thursday evening I sat down with Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms, and Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, to discuss the pressures and inequities that continue to plague mothers in the workplace. We talked about the pandemic-induced shecession, the imbalance in childcare responsibilities, and what can be done to fix our thinking around motherhood and work.

Read on for a few highlights from our conversation and watch the full video on my Instagram page.

“Our labor market participation is where it was in 1989.” Since the start of the pandemic, 2.4 million women have dropped out of the workforce in the U.S. Reshma pointed to two major reasons for this: the U.S. childcare system is broken, and women disproportionately had jobs that are not “pandemic-proof.” The result is that we have lost 30 years of progress in 9 months, Reshma said.

“I think it’s led to a sense that we need a national reckoning, meaning we have to pass legislation to fix our structure, but we also have to shift the culture around motherhood.” Reshma pointed out that women still do 86% of the housework. Particularly with the added responsibility of remote school, Shelley said, “A lot of women are opting out because they can’t do it all.”

“People are having to make choices that aren’t really choices because the structure is broken.” Reshma talked about her own experience as the daughter of refugees who couldn’t afford childcare, and how the lack of affordable childcare forces women out of the workforce.

“If we’re going to give flexibility, it should be mandatory…so that we don’t continue to go backwards with the bias barriers that mothers experience.” Shelley argued that employers must make conscious choices about allowing for flexible work situations to prevent women from taking on the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities. 

“You can’t build America back better if you don’t build motherhood back better.” Reshma made the case for universal pre-kindergarten, paid leave, affordable daycare, and maternal health to be priorities. She also argued that we should create a system in which parents can care for their own children, rather than daycare being the only option.

“If you’re not creating incentives to change the structure of who’s doing what at home, nothing changes.” Reshma stressed the role of the private sector in creating change for women. According to Shelley, “When we have elective fraternity leave less than 24% of men take it because they feel it’ll show a sign of weakness.”

“Millennials don’t want to have kids because it’s too expensive, it’s too much work, they have no support. It’s not that they’re dying to go get the corner office.” Reshma pointed out the lack of resources for families as one cause of the U.S.’s steeply declining birth rate. “I don’t think we have a choice but to actually figure this out…or else we have a real problem on our hands,” she said.

“The qualities of caregivers – nurturing and empathy and compassion and resilience – those are the greatest qualities of leaders today, and yet we’re losing our greatest leaders to caregiving.” Shelley argued for changing corporate culture to make caregiving the norm, rather than the exception, in company policies. “There is a caregiving penalty. It’s always existed,” Reshma said.

“Kids have to be back in school because that extra responsibility of homeschooling is not just the tipping point, but it is the flipping point.” Shelley reiterated the toll that remote school has had on parents and on mothers in particular, which Reshma related to her own experience of having a 13-month old and a 6-year-old at home: “Never interrupt my husband, but only me.”