Want to See More Female Founders? Consider Universal Child Care

If you are a mom in tech the question you get a lot is: “how do you do it?”. Coming from Finland, first I did not understand what the big deal was — doesn’t every working parent have to equally figure it out? After living three years in Silicon Valley I got it: it’s about how a region supports risk-taking and creates financial security for women and young families. In Silicon Valley, starting a company and a family is a risk few women want to consider.

Being an entrepreneur means you bet your time and money for years to nurture an uncertain business idea that you’re passionate about. It’s an exciting but a high-stress career choice that you are less likely to make if you have to worry about basic things such as health care or child care.

Just to put this in perspective for my European friends: in the US, public schools are free, but daycare is not, so in the case you one day decide to have a family, the options for who takes care of your kids while you’re working are:

a) A private nanny/daycare

b) Grandparents or friends

c) One of the parents stay home

If both parents want to work, and the grandparents do not live close by, the cost for private childcare can range between $1,500–4,500 per month, depending on the length of the parent’s work days. In Silicon Valley this comes on top of high rental cost, which for one bedroom apartment starts at $2,000, and for a 3-bedroom house at $5,000.

The high living costs mean that many middle and low-income families cannot afford full-time childcare and yet they may not be eligible for subsidized child care, which in turn means that unless they have extended family who can help, the other parent needs to stay home to take care of the kids. This situation also puts a lot of pressure on the working parent, whose health care now covers the whole family. What if the other parent becomes unemployed? What if the parents wear out and get divorced? Who wants to become a startup entrepreneur in this situation? Most sane people will say: no thank you, I have enough uncertainly in my life.

So in our civilized world where motherhood still is the main reason for a significant gender pay gap, how can we convince more young women to make a multi-year commitment to start their own companies?

Now that I’ve lived and worked as a tech entrepreneur and a mom in both the US and Finland, it’s easier to compare the two systems. The biggest difference is this: with universal childcare, women in any income group can pursue a high-risk career, because the system provides them with enough financial security independent from their spouses. For example, in Finland I was an entrepreneur and a single mom with two small children. Every morning at 8am, I dropped the kids off at the local daycare, went to the office, and picked them up again at 5pm. The childcare was free, and I knew that no matter what would happened with my company, my kids would be fine.

In California, which is otherwise amazing, but does not provide universal child care, only women with enough financial security would consider becoming an entrepreneur. Families with well-paid tech jobs in Silicon Valley are still wondering how long they can afford to live here. It’s easier if you don’t have small children.

Of all the places in the world, including small Nordic countries, you’d think that the wealthy Silicon Valley would be the first region in the US to offer free child care for all families to support a more diverse and equal culture of innovation. If not, maybe this can be something other startup hubs can offer to differentiate and compete for talent.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 16, 2017.

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