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Startups, children, and why women feel they can’t do both

Do women have to choose between kids and their careers?


Rebecca Grant

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 9, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 2:18 pm CDT

One Tuesday evening not too long ago, I was sitting around at dinner with a group of ambitious, young startup women, including female founders, UX designers, marketers, engineers, product managers, and journalists. The conversation turned to the myth of “having it all.” Despite collective acknowledgement that “all” is an unrealistic ideal, most of the women in the group were troubled that they would never be able to balance their startup career with children—that, at some point, they would have to choose.

I was shocked. This was a group of high-powered, strong women living in San Francisco in 2015—why do so many of them feel that career and children is a binary choice? That trying to juggle them both would be impossible, or at least an exercise in futility? Larger tech companies like Facebook and Google are known for their progressive parental leave policies, but clearly these policies have not yet trickled down to startups. For most women in the startup world, the desire to have children is still accompanied by the fear that having them will ruin a career.

“I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that having kids may not be part of my plan,” said Melissa Eisenberg, a marketing specialist at Secret. “Deep down, I want them so bad, but I also realize that I can’t even get through a date without something coming up for work, much less have a husband or children. I constantly feel that I am at a disadvantage to men and work so hard to be taken seriously. I have been given the opportunity to do well and earn equality, but it is not going to be given, it is earned, which means you have to sacrifice other options. That is a lot of pressure.”

This was a group of high-powered, strong women living in San Francisco in 2015—why do so many of them feel that career and children is a binary choice?

While these concerns are certainly not limited to startups, they are particularly pronounced because a) women represent such a significant minority, especially in leadership roles and b) startups don’t operate like larger companies with HR departments and established maternity leave policies.

Startup culture is notorious for its demanding 24/7 commitment. The environment is highly competitive. Forty-hour weeks are viewed as part-time, working the longest hours becomes a badge of honor, and employees who are offered unlimited vacation days feel guilty about taking any at all. This atmosphere causes many women who don’t have children to worry that they can’t do both, and women who have young children to believe working for a startup is not feasible, much less founding one.

Jess Brown is the UX Lead at Rent The Runway. She previously worked for a number of startups in San Francisco where she said the pressure to be a workaholic was pervasive. Brown left the city in 2013 to join Rent The Runway, a company founded and run by female founders and found the cultural differences to be dramatic.

“As much as people in Silicon Valley want to talk about startups as a meritocracy, the fact is that people who are doing great work can sometimes get penalized for lifestyle decisions they have to make,” said Brown said. “If you have to work 16 hour days to fit in culturally, that’s not a meritocracy. It is a result of, and perpetuates, the lack of diversity. We need more leaders, male or female, who respect people’s lives outside of the office and choose to prioritize a diverse workforce.”

Prioritizing diversity is not the startup world’s strong suit. I interviewed countless founders when I worked as the startup reporter for VentureBeat. While I don’t think that many of them consciously try to limit the diversity of their teams or avoid hiring women who may soon have children, other factors, such as expectations around time commitments and the dearth of women, stigmatize motherhood.

Furthermore, most startups don’t have the resources to offer comprehensive family health plans, support for childcare, or paid family leave until they have achieved a certain stage of growth and stability. In fact, when ad-tech startup PaperG conducted a survey of 97 tech companies, none of the seed stage startups it surveyed offered maternity leave, and only half of the Series A companies did. While this is partly due to the under-resourced nature of young startups, these factors make it even more difficult to balance a career in this field and family.

“A lot of companies are founded by pretty young founders who are learning so much on the job, so they don’t really know how to do what they are doing,” said Andy Sparks, the COO of Mattermark, which implemented its first parental leave policy a few months ago. “They have a lot of blinders up to anything that is not right in front of them. I don’t think it is explicitly something they decide not to supply, but it is off their radar entirely.”

These lifestyle obstacles are further compounded by social ones. Women still represent a significant majority of primary caregivers for children in the U.S., even if they work full-time. When a couple is going to have a child, the prevalent assumption remains that the mother will dedicate the most time to caring for it. Even if this is not the case, the “motherhood penalty” still hurts her career. A study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that while the gender pay gap is decreasing, the pay gap related to parenthood is increasing. Women’s wages go down when they become parents, while men’s wages actually go up. Childless women and fathers also rate significantly higher than mothers on “competency, work commitment, promote-ability, & recommendations for hire.”

“Traditional family roles are absolutely a factor in the percentage of women in executive roles within startups,” said Maha Ibrahim, a General Partner at venture capital firm Canaan Partners. “Startups are just moving too quickly to think about any of that, and that often prevents women who have a lot of demands in the home to be considered. This is not an issue that is changing as dramatically as it should. It can be done and it will happen with more regularity, but we need more female entrepreneurs to be role models.”

Women’s wages go down when they become parents, while men’s wages actually go up.

The notions that mothers have less time, are less productive, and are less able to develop professional skills exist across all industries, but these biases are especially prohibitive in startups where culture is dictated by young men who generally don’t go out of their way to create family-friendly workplaces. Generous parental leave policies could be a theoretical goal for “down-the-road” once more resources are available, but if a welcoming atmosphere isn’t cultivated from the beginning, than it is less likely a mother will consider working there at all. In fact, 61 percent of women in tech said they would not work for a company that did not have a paid maternity leave policy, so startups that wait to implement these policies are already keeping women out.

The disparities are even more pronounced when it comes to founding companies. Over a third of the founders in Canaan Partners’ most recent fund are female, which considering that just 13 percent of venture-backed companies have at least one female co-founder, is significant. However, Ibrahim said that nearly all of these female founders either don’t have children or have children who are out of the house. Meanwhile, men between 20 and 40 are founding startups in droves, and a significant amount of them have kids. A report from the Kauffman Foundation titled “The Anatomy of the Entrepreneur” found that 59.7 percent of respondents indicated they had at least one child when they launched their first business, and 43.5 percent had two or more children.

Clearly, most male entrepreneurs are undeterred by the prospect of caring for a family while churning away at a startup. Women, on the other hand, are holding back, dropping out, or making concessions they don’t want to make due to their desire to have children. The result is that far too few women get to positions of leadership in the startup community, which further solidifies a culture that discourages diversity and excludes women. The cycle perpetuates. Even for companies that do have parental leave policies in place, they are borderline useless unless they are backed up by an organizational culture that promotes work-life balance, which is often not the case.

“We’ve seen that upper-income, well-educated workers don’t take family leave because they think they will be viewed negatively, won’t be taken as seriously, will lose out on opportunities for advancement, or somehow their commitment will be questioned,” said Vicki Shabo, the Vice President for the National Partnership for Women & Families. “Founders have the opportunity to create a culture where the policies aren’t just on paper, but rather encourage people’s ability to be good parents and good workers. In tech, there are some leaders speaking out about why strong paid leave policies make business sense, but by and large companies don’t see their own interest in creating these policies.”

Women are holding back, dropping out, or making concessions they don’t want to make due to their desire to have children. 

It is in every business’ best interest to implement these policies. The difference is that startups often don’t have HR people making the case and are just not thinking about diversity as they grow. Desire for inclusion aside, a culture that supports women and families is just plain smart. The White House published a report arguing that women who do have access to paid leave and take advantage of it are far more likely to come back to work, which means companies don’t have to funnel resources into recruiting and training new people. Recent research from a team of scientists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College found that teams with more women outperform teams with more men. Studies from the National Center for Women & Information Technology also revealed that gender-balanced companies perform better financially, especially when women occupy a significant portion of top management positions and demonstrate superior team dynamics and productivity.

These studies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to showing why gender diversity—and, thus, family-friendly workplaces—matters. And not just for high-caliber, high-spending employers like Facebook, Google, and Apple—for startups, too. Despite the fact that startup life seems to make balancing a career and children prohibitively difficult, it doesn’t have to be this way. Every startup has a golden opportunity to create its own culture. Founding/working for a startup could even be viewed as more conducive to work-life balance.   

“I remember feeling that I had to choose between family and career,” said Leah Sparks, cofounder and CEO of Wildflower Health. “I had a big corporate job when I was 26 where I worked all the time, and that would not be a good choice now that I have kids. I actually think that founding a startup works really well with having a family because we provide a flexible work environment where people thrive.”

Sparks and COO Kathy Bellevin founded Wildflower Health while Sparks was pregnant with her first child. The company launched its first iOS app called Due Date Plus, a smartphone enabled maternity program, in 2013. Bellevin also has young kids and Sparks is currently pregnant with her second child. During an interview, both women agreed that founding a startup has empowered them to create a culture that makes being a founder, leader, and mother sustainable. 

Flexibility and an emphasis on productivity over facetime are key here, as are paid leave policies that extend to both men and women. Paternity leave is just as essential to achieving equality as maternity leave, but the share of companies that offer it is declining, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. In addition, strong stigmas exist against men taking time off for family leave, especially when a majority of coworkers aren’t taking time off to have children. The stigmas against men taking paternity leave further exacerbate the already steep challenges for women.

“If women are going to succeed in tech and startups, we have to get over the question of ‘career or family?’” said Sparks. “Women can’t feel like they have to choose, but that they can do both.”

Photo via whatsthatpicture/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 9, 2015, 1:45 pm CST