Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited from its original version. It was originally published in its entirety by the International Monetary Fund’s Finance & Development magazine. Reshma Saujani is the founder of non profit organizations, Marshall Plan for Moms and Girls Who Code. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Covid-19 wreaked economic havoc on women globally, especially mothers, bringing into sharp focus the policies and practices that continue to thwart gender equality at work and at home.
This widening chasm troubles Reshma Saujani, a leading activist, founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms and Girls Who Code, and author of the forthcoming book “Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work.”
In an interview with the International Monetary Fund’s deputy secretary, Sabina Bhatia, Saujani reflects on the pandemic’s impact on mothers and girls and how policymakers and the private sector need to step up to ensure a better, fairer, and more equitable workplace.
IMF: Tell us about your new initiative, the Marshall Plan for Moms, and why this is a pivotal moment.
Saujani: Women have been crushed in the pandemic. Because the care structure is broken, many had to supplement their paid labor with unpaid labor. Globally, women started leaving the labor force because it was untenable. The December 2020 jobs report by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that only women, especially women of color, lost their jobs. I looked at the report and thought, “well, someone’s got to have a plan.” We can’t lose 30 years of progress in nine months.
I asked mothers in my parent-teacher association what they needed to return to work. They needed cash, paid leave, and — most important — affordable childcare. They also needed retraining. Data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women are three to five times more likely than men to hold part-time or low-wage jobs. The Marshall Plan for Moms originated from those conversations.
We put out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, followed by letters from prominent women and men telling the United States Congress that mothers don’t work for free. Since then, we have had a few bills introduced in Congress calling for a Marshall Plan for Moms.
We also provided a playbook to employers on how to bring women back to work. The Marshall Plan is not just a government intervention; the private sector and families need to stand up too. I want to finish this fight once and for all.
IMF: We hear a lot about labor shortages. In this moment, women have a lot of bargaining power. What should they be asking for?
Saujani: Women need either flexibility or predictability. Many of us had to hide our children because it seemed like a lack of commitment to the job. Mothers are paid less than fathers for the same work. Offering flexibility can change this.
Second, companies should provide affordable childcare. Every study has shown that a child’s first four years are critical. If we’re providing public education, we should provide public childcare too. We should pay for that as a society. The private sector should lead the way to show they value their workers. This should happen for both salaried and hourly employees.
IMF: What should employers do to build a better workplace that is flexible and predictable for parents but works for employers too?
Saujani: Companies must understand there is no going back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. Before the pandemic, I used to spend 45 minutes a day with my kids, and I was okay with that. I’m never going back. Today, I am more productive and am able to take my son to his music class. It’s a myth that having face time and sitting at a desk are the only ways of measuring productivity.
From a gender equality perspective, companies should tie performance reviews and salary compensation to whether the men in their offices take paternity leave. It helps change the gender roles at home.
IMF: As a manager yourself, how are you supporting the women who work with you?
Saujani: We allow people to set their own hours. There is no motherhood penalty. And we offer childcare benefits to families. Typically, childcare shouldn’t be more than 7% of income, but it’s vastly more expensive.
IMF: You started Girls Who Code as a way of bridging gender inequities in the tech sector. Are you worried that the digital gender divide has worsened in the pandemic?
Saujani: Globally, this was a devastating year for students. Many were getting Wi-Fi in Burger King parking lots or sharing a device among a family of three. Mothers were essential workers; they couldn’t help them log on to school. We don’t talk enough about having a two-generational strategy toward poverty alleviation.
Nearly 1.6 million girls are also caretakers for their siblings or others. It interferes with their ability to study. We don’t have a plan for that.
At Girls Who Code, we have always focused on how to teach the most vulnerable. We taught more girls of color and those below the poverty line because we innovated. We saw virtual learning as an opportunity. We should be figuring out how every child, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, can have high-speed internet and the opportunity to learn.
We must meet this moment by not only fixing the lack of support structures, but also by ensuring that we don’t lose the progress achieved in girls’ education. Every organization and government should ensure that the girls in their community are learning at the same rate as boys.