Recently, many articles have appeared fanning the flames of debate over whether women can 'have it all.' I don't know what the 'all' is that we're supposed to want, but I can say that I have one of the best work/family balances I've encountered. And this was made possible by the culture of startups.
Consider working in, or creating, an environment where flexibility is celebrated, no matter what your life choices and needs may be.
When my daughter was born, I worked for a big financial services company and my husband literally founded a startup that same day. We ended up choosing a daycare in the same building as the startup. I thought this was a great idea in recognition that, given the same skills, men are on average rewarded more when they are fathers, and every study I've read says that mothers are paid less, in part because of the perception that mothers need more flexibility than fathers.
Here's why I believe that startups are the ideal family-friendly settings, even if you don't consider yourself to be the type of person to center your life on family (or at least not yet):
- Should you choose to become a startup founder, you set the culture and decide the policy. It may still be tough to balance workload with family life, but at least you are the one doing the choosing. I have met many women who started their businesses because, although the income was less predictable, their lives were under their own control.
- If you're not the founder, note the average founder for whom you'd be working is in their mid to late 30s, a time when they're most likely to have young children. Many fathers in that age group are just as engaged as parents as mothers. Very young, successful founders are outliers. Businesses started by more seasoned entrepreneurs have a higher chance of success, which means that an older entrepreneur has a higher probability of attracting capital. Why is this important? Because when a management team has young children, the infrastructure of the company is designed to accommodate parents, not stigmatize them. It's tough for people without child care responsibilities to take this into account, because it's just not a consideration in their own lives.
- Startup offices are a more casual environment. No one is going to freak out when you bring your kid in the office and set them up with a white board and magic markers for the morning. This priceless art shows up on the walls all over the software companies I have seen.
- Working from home requires no special agreement, permission, or anyone even granting a favor. If you can't pay in cash, you can reward with job satisfaction and flexibility. There are many reasons why employees need to work from home on occasion. Software companies in particular are sensitive to letting their employees have heads-down time wherever is most productive, which sometimes means working from home. I am an office person, but I am grateful that I don't need special permission to stay home and work when I desire.
I spent nearly 20 years working for medium and large companies, in many roles from engineer to management consultant to VP of Product. I have noticed in many of these roles at larger companies that the women around me who were successful either had no children or had adult children. Or, maybe worse, a larger company would create a 'mommy-track' (does anyone else cringe whenever they hear that?) that was 'family-friendly.' Those jobs inevitably paid less to start, and had a lower pay trajectory, in a way that sometimes came off as predatory rather than supportive. They also reinforced stereotypes that women should be the ones to take on a flexible workday when family needs arose.
Maybe as my daughter gets older, I will return to a larger firm. Having seen both sides now, I firmly believe startups can and do provide an environment that is not just accepting of people with families, but actually provides a great support system for working parents of young children that benefits both men and women. To be fair, I should also note that I've been called a workaholic more than once in my life. I love to work, and working at off-hours has always been normal to me.
Something else to keep in mind is that companies started 30 or 100 years ago are culturally designed around a family model that existed at the time they were founded. As the definition of family evolves, more established companies have significant cultural and policy barriers to overcome in order to keep up. And their approaches to redefining the work environment can by definition only be patches.
About the guest blogger: Shereen Shermak is a Co-Founder and VP of Product Management of Buyside FX, a Boston-based startup backed by Google Ventures that is bringing transparency to the Foreign Exchange industry. Her first startup was Fashionplaytes, which she co-founded, then she returned to financial services for her next three startups. Shereen holds an MBA from MIT's Sloan School, an MPA from Harvard's Kennedy School, and an undergraduate degree in engineering from Duke University.