There’s a glossy version of privileged “empowerment” selling the message that it’s easy for women to have everything — all they have to do is work for it and want it badly enough. You might consider this the corollary to Ivanka Trump’s tone-deaf concept of what “women who work” are. Of course, sheer want is an oversimplification of what most women actually go through to achieve their goals. And whether or not anyone wants to admit it, there are two types of women who come out ahead in the workplace: women with excessive resources at their disposal and women without children.
“I absolutely feel that my workplace rewards childlessness and feel a tremendous amount of pressure to try and control if and when I do get pregnant,” one female sales professional told me. In part, this is the nature of her job: “I work on a small team…so if one of us can’t work for an extended period of time during our peak sales period, it would greatly [hurt] our numbers as a whole.”
Though her concern pertains directly to her profession as a saleswoman at an arts organization, it highlights a fundamental flaw in the workplace: It’s not conducive for women who wish to have children. They are often forced to relinquish their autonomy when it comes to deciding when they wish to conceive, and their employer will ultimately mandate exactly when they do. And yet society asks women why they abandon strong careers or forego having kids instead of asking workplaces why they’re slow to change their tenor.
Pregnancy discrimination was prohibited by Title VII in 1964, but there’s still an inherent bias against women who wish to have children. A California woman I spoke with—who, it should be noted, didn’t even want kids yet — told me that her employer “joked” that she better not get pregnant, because two of her co-workers were already expecting. Beyond explicit transgressions, there are quieter attacks that hint “don’t get pregnant now or in the foreseeable future.” Boys’ club culture isn’t new, but today it’s shrouded in free snacks and happy hours.
Being a “culture fit” is a relatively recent requirement with the rise of startups. Will you go rock climbing with us on a Sunday afternoon? Do you like bonding over IPAs until the wee hours of the morning? Are you able to handle questionable jokes in the break room (hey, we’re all friends here!)? If not, sorry, you’re not a culture fit.
“I think this is something created by men in power to really support their sexist, patriarchal ideas of what work should be,” says Laurie Ruettimann, human resources consultant and workplace expert. “Work is an exchange of services for money at its core.”
On the other hand, “Culture fit is a code word for ageism, ableism, sexism — for everything [a company wants] and everything they don’t, but they’re going to make it grand and lofty,’” says Ruettimann. She prefers to use the term “climate,” which is similar to a workplace culture in that it defines a company’s mood and environment — only unlike culture, it’s not finite and definitive; it can be altered. “Culture should be reserved for Renaissance paintings,” she says.
Culture fit is a major issue for people—especially women—who wish to have families or for anyone who might feel at odds with group activities. After-hours drinks can be tough for parents with kids, but consider people who have chronic fatigue syndrome, says Ruettimann — how would they feel about heavily encouraged company bowling?
“The other thing that really kills women is required travel,” says Mary Ann Mason, a professor at the graduate school at UC Berkeley, faculty affiliate at the UC Berkeley Center of Law and Technology, and the author of several books, including Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. “A lot of companies require a lot of travel, and if you’ve got a small child, it’s really very hard to travel.” This is partly because of the cost of accommodations for the child and corresponding childcare. “It disillusions you and makes you want to quit,” says Mason.
Younger companies haven’t had to think about cultivating family-friendly climates until recently. A cool startup that offers free beer and weekend hikes might be attractive to a young male, but it’s when that young male grows up that will push change. Consider how Mark Zuckerberg was hailed when he took time off in late 2015 for the birth of his daughter. Policy and culture starts at the top, and it’s a relief to see the CEO of a major tech company put his family first — but it’s also a little sad that it takes a man to make changes that inevitably affect women more. But that’s often how it goes with these sorts of changes. Mason says that when fathers take leave, mothers will follow suit. If the message has been relayed that men won’t get slighted for their absences, women will potentially feel more comfortable doing the same.
Mason has spent years researching family-friendly workplaces and helped to further Assembly Bill 2350 in California, which helps prevent pregnancy discrimination in graduate school. After noticing that many women in the graduate program at UC Berkeley were leaving due to family responsibilities, Mason created a program called the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge. It includes generous leave policies that encourage women to continue with their academic careers while raising children so women wouldn’t need to be set back or prolong parenthood.
Besides, what a privilege to get to put pregnancy on the shelf! Typically, delaying parenthood is a luxury: Freezing your eggs costs around $10,000, which is not small change to most women — unless your company pays for it. In 2014, Apple and Facebook announced they’d cover these costs. Recently, the Silicon Valley Business Journal noted that more major tech companies, like Google and Intel, had jumped on board in what was predominantly viewed as a smart move for keeping women in the workforce.
While egg freezing is a matter of choice (and privilege), and covering steep fertility costs demonstrates a vested interest in women’s well-being, it can belie a lack of policies and adaptations that let women maintain their careers while having children. It’s a subtle form of body policing: It would really not benefit the company if you got pregnant right now, so let’s freeze those eggs for later. “It’s not family friendly,” says Mason. “It’s [company] friendly.”
The goal of this company policy is a sense of liberation, but a study published in the Journal of Assisted Reproductive Genetics in 2015 found this could only be “truly liberating” if three things took place: Women were educated on all aspects of egg freezing, including risks and limitations; there was zero pressure to do so; and it didn’t have a “negative effect on other family-friendly policies.” This raises the question: Do some companies shirk having truly family-friendly cultures by instead drawing attention to perks? That doesn’t help a woman’s autonomy—rather, it does the opposite. Worse, “fulfilling these conditions may turn out to be impossible,” the study concluded. “Thus, regardless of companies’ possible good intentions, women’s reproductive autonomy is not well served by offering them company-sponsored [egg freezing].”
Companies should aspire to be truly family friendly from the get-go. The Healthy Mothers Workplace Coalition promotes policy and cultural changes to help make companies family friendly in a multitude of ways: fair parental leave policies, adequate breastfeeding setups, and work-life balance. The coalition administers awards for companies that demonstrate superior policies (such as Square, which has a fully paid parental leave program, including for adopted children), a policy for permitting babies at work, and a childcare subsidy.
After all, progress isn’t pushing a certain answer to a deeply personal question—it’s minimizing the need for that question. It’s quite evident that the workplace favors the gender that doesn’t ever have to ask these questions in the first place. And for those who are blind to everything but the bottom line, Ruettimann says, “What’s good for women is good for the organization.”