Reshma Saujani was a believer. The founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that helps women get careers in computer science, believed wholeheartedly in the idea that professional women could have it all: a job in tech and a family.
"I had kind of bought into the myth of corporate feminism," she said. "I had spent 10 years telling women to 'lean in.' I had more 'Girl Boss' t-shirts in my closet than I could count."
Then something changed during the pandemic. After schools shut down, Saujani realized that no one had really stopped to consider what this meant for women, who still do the lion's share of unpaid care work. Who, exactly, would be helping their child log into Zoom school?
"One policy decision changed the lives of tens of millions of people, and they just did it," she said. "They didn't even think about it. There wasn't even a discussion."
Of course, there was eventually a discussion about the merits of school shutdowns, which continues to this day, but Saujani said their implications for women in the workplace remain underexplored.
This opened a whole can of worms for the former self-avowed Girl Boss. In many ways, it made her critical of the entire decades-long process of integrating women into the workforce. At a fundamental level, she explained, workplaces still aren't designed for women like herself.
"It really became clear to me over the last couple of years that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the workplace," she said. "The workplace has never been built for women, and we're never going to achieve equality unless we have equality at home."
She outlined these concerns in her latest book, Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It's Different Than You Think), which came out last week, while also launching a series of initiatives aimed at balancing the scales between men and women.
One of those efforts is called the Marshall Plan for Moms, a public campaign demanding that the federal government provide short-term payments to mothers based on needs and resources, paid family leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity for men and women.
She followed that up with the release of a playbook for employers that called for more flexibility in scheduling, incentivizing paternity leave, normalizing more paid time off, and guaranteeing paid sick leave, among other measures.
For context, more than half of states still don't require paid sick leave law, and most of the other policies vary significantly between companies and industries.
Saujani stressed that the conversation has to move beyond discussing whether to return to the office and address how companies and governments can help lift the burden on women going forward.
"Don't fight us on flexibility and remote working," she said. "Find a way to design hybrid working so we don't have to choose between being a parent and being a worker. Start subsidizing our childcare, just like they pay for healthcare benefits."
She added that now is the time to pursue these policies because the tight labor market is giving workers more leverage to make demands of their employers.
"We have this opportunity with the Great Resignation," she said. "Eleven million jobs are open right now. It's a seller's market. Companies are desperate for talent."