Want to fix gender inequality in the workplace? Hire part-time.
It’s time parents don't have to choose between family and career
Thought experiment. Let’s design a work/life system that is optimized to make life hell for parents with babies and young kids. Here’s my take:
Your job is 9-5. Somehow, your newborn is 24/7?! Get expensive childcare and work, or quit.
Your job is 9-5. Your 4th grader goes to school 8-3. Then they have activities to do after 3?! Work to afford after-care, or quit.
You get some leave for the birth of your child if you’re lucky, but after a few weeks, it’s time to figure out how to care for your child. Work, or quit.
As expectant moms progress through pregnancy, carrying both the weight of a growing baby and career, they can keep working, or quit.
As parents get ready to meet their child and prepare for the logistics and emotional rollercoaster of birthing or adopting a baby (oh and raising them too), they can keep working, or quit.
Work from home! Except you also have to watch your kid while on zooms. Work and parent at the same time, or quit.
Does this sound familiar? This is working life as a parent today. This is crazy!
Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing more important to our society than family stability (somehow even more important than enterprise value)!
This little thought experiment is the reality for many working parents today, but we have to talk about moms specifically. Much has been written about the gender wage gap and lack of women in tech.
This article by Vox revealed that the wage gap is mostly a child care penalty, which is a shock to pretty much zero parents. The article stops short of explaining the root cause of the penalty discrepancy between men and women, but it does say:
“What our evidence shows is that a lot of gender inequality is associated with choices that suggest different preferences… The holy grail is understanding whether those preferences are social norms, or something more intrinsic.”
It’s likely the true answer is a bit of column A and a bit of column B. Choosing to leave work because you want to care for your child is fine, and this likely skews towards moms. But when this is the result of having no other choice, it puts many families in a bind.
At the risk of mansplaining, just some of the reasons why this happens involuntarily:
Not wanting to deal with pumping/breastfeeding while working
Dealing with health complications post-labor
No better options for childcare that are cost-effective, so it falls on the mom
And many other barriers to returning to work
In fairness, tech companies have certainly made progress towards helping moms with better leave policies and more maternity benefits. But most of these things only help the few weeks around birth/adoption and not the 17.5 or so other years you have to raise a child!
At the end of the day, the best perk for most parents is maximum flexibility. Rather than spending money on things that may or may not be useful, a company culture and benefits that improve flexibility can be used by both parents and non-parents to tailor to what is most important in their lives.
All of these things usually come to a head as parents expect their first child. The Decision is:
Unless you have relatives who can care for your kids full-time or you want to be self-employed, your options are usually binary: work, or quit. (And if you’re a single parent… well, God bless you, thoughts and prayers 🙏 ).
These are not great options! How do we fix this?
It’s time for Part-Time
There’s no silver bullet to fix the problems of balancing career and work. As long as parenting is hard (hint: it’ll always be), and cost of living continues to increase, we’ll be stuck with difficult choices. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have better choices.
Part-time roles can provide the flexibility necessary for parents and moms especially to stay engaged in the workforce when they would otherwise leave altogether. For many, it’s the goldilocks option that lets us have the best of both worlds.
From a macro perspective, it’s extremely poor resource utilization for there to be a large pool of skilled workers who decide involuntarily to leave employment when there are hundreds of thousands of open job positions in the information technology sector in the United States (US Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Instead, part-time gives parents another choice where they can continue making income, help care for their kids, and maintain momentum in their career without having to do a full stop. Or, for parents who have taken a break from full-time employment, part-time roles may be an easier on-ramp back towards the traditional workforce.
Though you may not hear about these stories often, there are many examples of parents who have used part-time roles to help balance raising a family and career (I’m one of them).
As an aside, my goal with the upcoming “Part-Time Profiles in Tech” series is to share many of these stories. If you have been able to work part-time in any capacity and would like to share your experience, please fill out this form!
How should company leaders respond?
These days, many tech companies believe they are advocates for diversity, supporting parents, and flexible work. But frankly, most companies are just talk.
Instead, be a leader in this space. Walk the walk. Offer part-time roles, not just as a weird fringe thing, but as a core part of your company’s talent strategy. Forget the nap rooms or sending baby gifts the family won’t use. Focus on just three things to hire and retain parents:
Comprehensive leave policies
A flexible, asynchronous culture
When you offer these part-time roles, don’t do it half-heartedly. Like any good leader or manager has to do with any new initiative, establish clear expectations with the company and individual. Provide career paths. Support them fully. Part-time roles will work in your company if your culture supports it.
If you’re in the United States, find ways to offer health-care to part-time employees.
The companies that embrace this will be seen as leaders and will attract top talent - both parents and non-parents alike.
Thought Experiment 2.0
Let’s design a work/life system optimized to give parents flexibility and choice as they navigate career and family life.
👶 You have generous leave policies for the birth or adoption of your child.
🕜 If you choose to continue your career, you’ll have the option of reduced hours roles that have tailored performance expectations, and are treated as importantly as other full-time roles. Your entire company moves towards more flexible norms like async written communication over meetings where possible, and sets up calendars and expectations around availability for all employees. Some teams are composed of entirely part-time employees. With the flexibility and additional time on your hands, you can better balance your career and childcare. Your company is known for being very parent friendly and attracts and retains high-level talent.
⏎ If you decide to leave work for a time, but return in the future, there are part-time roles available that can make the transition back to work smoother.
🔄 There are established programs and lightweight processes for allowing employees to transition between full and part-time roles as life’s wants and needs change. If you’re a parent who wanted to be home for the first few years of your child’s life, but then you wanted to work more as your child went to school and became more independent, this is perfect for you.
📈On the whole, the gender wage gap starts to close as moms and dads both have more options and flexibility. This results in more moms deciding to stay in the workforce and continue their careers into higher paying and status positions.
Most of all, you feel that no matter what life throws at you, you can still have a career and family, because there are a spectrum of flexible options available to you as a parent. You don’t dread “The Decision” anymore because you can change your mind at any time with many lower-stakes decisions.
A work/life system that benefits parents creates stronger families and stronger communities. It’s time more and more companies begin to embrace that the future of work is not just about where you work, but how much you work as well.