March 15, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

When we spoke with Reshma Saujani last August, she noted that people would be shocked to see how few women were returning to offices at that point. Remote working, she argued, had hidden the extent to which working mothers were sidelined by caregiving and schooling responsibilities—a reality that society would only realize too late.

Saujani’s new book Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think) is her attempt to wake people up to the unequal burdens that working mothers have shouldered—even more intensely during the pandemic—and put forward agendas for individuals, companies, and policy-makers to fix them.

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Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms, and a former corporate lawyer and candidate for Congress and the New York City public advocate. In earlier days, she urged women to fix themselves and do what it took to “have it all.” But, if nothing else, her own experience as mother of two young boys eventually made clear that the onus needs to be on society to change rather than solely on mothers themselves.

“Yes, we can have big jobs. Yes, we can have families,” Saujani writes. “But no, we cannot have both in the current paradigm that exists in this country—at least not without damaging our partnerships, our career trajectory and earnings potential, the wellbeing of our kids, and our own mental and physical health.” (p. 7)

Pay Up, which is out today, is a straightforward guide to the data and historical context around the burnout and inequity impacting working mothers—including that 70% of them handle the majority of childcare—and how it all intensified since February 2020. The book provides specific policy and workplace recommendations—such as affordable childcare and employer support for fathers taking parental leave (a powerful driver of gender equality)—though in many ways the problem festers not because the solutions aren’t known but because of a lack of political and individual will.

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Case in point: Congress last year funded a massive physical infrastructure law while failing to reach agreement to fund childcare, paid family leave, and other human infrastructure. “It’s shameful at this moment that we [would] rather bail out airlines and not bail out moms,” Saujani told the Financial Times.

The book’s title is a reference to the need to get workplaces and government “to pay up for the unseen, unpaid labor of mothers—via respect, recognition, and cold, hard cash.” (p. 45)

Saujani proposes nine ways workplaces can work for women:

  • Give women control over their schedules. Flexibility is the number-one concern of working mothers, as it allows them to better navigate the rhythms of their professional and family lives. It’s important that all workers are encouraged to adopt flexible scheduling so that mothers aren’t penalized for taking advantage of it, Saujani says.
  • Support women with childcare. The supply is inadequate, and less than half of US employees provide childcare assistance. Companies can provide free or subsidized care or backup care.
  • Own their role in shaping gender dynamics in homes. Specifically, employers should offer paternity leave and encourage men to take it—which can result in fairer distribution of household responsibilities and less bias against women who take leave.
  • Provide paid leave for illness or taking care of a sick child. Millions of workers don’t have access to paid leave.
  • Identify and eliminate any anti-mom bias. Employers can evaluate whether mothers are being treated equally in terms of promotions and pay as well as shift evaluations to focus on the work done rather than time in the office.
  • Don’t rush new mothers back to work. Saujani recommends a minimum of 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, noting that “childbirth is no walk in the park, and moms need time to recover as well as time to bond with their new babies.” (p. 143)
  • Establish a strong reentry approach. Options include coaching for new mothers returning to the office and “returnships” that make it easier for mothers to take on new jobs after extended caregiving periods.
  • Prioritize women’s mental health. One way to help head off and address burnout is by making sure workers take time off to rest. Saujani cites the tagline in an email she received from a prominent business woman: “I do not expect a response to my email outside your normal working hours.” (p. 152)
  • Advocate for mothers publicly. Companies can support mom-friendly policies and pledge to hire mothers.

Saujani highlights three policy approaches:

  • Affordable, quality childcare. A Biden administration bill would cap at 7% of a family’s income what it needs to pay for childcare, provide universal free pre-K, and support struggling childcare centers.
  • Paid parental leave. Some 120 other countries—besides the US—have some kind of family leave paid for by the government.
  • Monthly payments to moms. Saujani’s Marshall Plan for Moms has called on the US government to pay mothers, whether they’re in the labor force or not, $2,400 per month. “Domestic work has value,” she writes. “But until we as a society put a number on it, we will never really value care work.” (p. 180)

To be sure:

  • Saujani notes that “the return to office presents the single biggest opportunity we have seen in modern times to reboot our workplace.” (p. 42) But, apart from her recommendations around flexibility, she doesn’t thoroughly analyze the dynamics of this specific transition moment and how that context can be used to advance needed changes.
  • The book is unhelpfully subtitled “The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think).” What did we think? And why is it different from that? Saujani implies that we might think the future of work is for women to “have it all”—though as she notes the pandemic has broadly demolished expectations of that.

Choice quotes:

  • “The Big Lie comes down to one startling fact: It makes no difference how much we lean into our careers or fight for gender parity in the workplace, or whether we partner up with ‘one of the good ones,’ because we participate in a workforce and live in a society that do not make having it all actually possible. Yes, the gains of the feminist movement have created extraordinary opportunities for us as women. But it has come at the unintended expense of our health, our marriages, our kids, and our peace of mind.” (p. 6)
  • “It took Covid-19 to rip the bandage off the ugly, festering, long-ignored wound that so many women share: that our work and dreams are not only taken for granted but viewed as expendable. As the default caregivers, we have become the unacknowledged, unpaid safety net in our country that invisibly holds everything together, and the press that places on us has become intolerable.” (p. 20)
  • “There is a one-in-a-generation opportunity that must not be missed to redefine the future of women and work. Aa future in which the work of labor in the home is valued and compensated on par with the labor in paid jobs, in which quality, affordable childcare, and paid parental leave are understood as essential to preserving the innovation and diverse capital women bring to the workforce; one in which workers’ wellness is valued just as much as their output and women no longer have to hide their identities in order to succeed.” (p. 20)
  • “All things being equal, I’d hire a mom 10 times over because we’re the ones who know how to juggle a million things at once, which is in fact the ideal worker.” (p. 41)
  • “We don’t need to break more glass ceilings. We don’t need more mentorship. We don’t need more conferences about women’s empowerment in the workplace. We need a workplace that is not designed around men.” (p. 41)
  • “It’s time for us to move from rage to power, to stop trying to figure out how to adapt in a workplace that is built for men and to get loud and tactical about how the workplace can adapt to us.” (p. 87)
  • “We need to call bullshit once and for all on the performative parenting thing.” (p. 111)

The bottom line is that Pay Up is a timely chronicling of how the pandemic pushed many working mothers to a breaking point. It offers cogent arguments for the changes needed in workplaces for the more than 80% of US women who will at one point in their lives be mothers and for everyone else as well.

You can order Pay Up at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission if you buy a book.)

Read Charter’s guide to making workplaces work for parents and other caregivers. Read our earlier interview with Saujani.

Read all of our book briefings here. Shop our book selections on Bookshop.org.

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