Hannah Harshe: When companies support women

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 4:42pm

My goal is not to meet the love of my life until I am at least 26.  That will give me two years after I complete my undergraduate degree to work somewhere abroad, building my resume and establishing connections. After that, I will still have two years to come back to the United States and complete my master’s degree. Then my future husband can come into the picture, though he will have to wait at least five years after that before having kids, to give me time to establish my career.

This is a common dinner table conversation among my four female roommates and me. We all hope to have families someday — I, in particular, grew up in a family with four kids and have always wanted to have at least that many myself. But my roommates and I stay at the library until the early hours of the morning multiple times a week and run ourselves dry with extracurriculars in hopes that the additions to our LinkedIn profiles will be the deciding factor for our future employers. So, though our bodies crave the idea of falling in love and raising a family, the idea terrifies us more than it excites us. We don’t want to give up the prospect of the careers we’re working so hard for, but we also don’t want to be that stereotypical working mom who leaves her kids in a nursery all day. We are aware that there will come a day when we have to choose between the joy of motherhood and the satisfaction of moving up in the workplace.

In these conversations, my roommates and I overlook two critical points. The first is that the only reason we face this dilemma is our gender. Our male friends have yet to consider at what age they want to get married and have kids. For women, this is a natural part of the conversation in college because it pertains directly to their future careers. For men, however, the potential of fatherhood is distinctly unrelated to the workplace. We live in a culture in which men can safely assume that being a “good father” will in no way conflict with their career goals.

There are ways that companies can mitigate the sexism that keeps mothers and future mothers from pursuing careers. Her Campus Media, one of the top media brands targeted at college women, recently took a public stance on its support for female employees by announcing that it is a Business for Birth Control. This means that, despite recent White House regulations that allow any employer to deny its employees birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Her Campus Media will continue to cover birth control for its employees.

“As a company whose every cell is about supporting, empowering, and lifting up women, we knew that making this kind of commitment to our employees was a no-brainer,” Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, CEO and Editor in Chief of Her Campus, wrote me in an email.

Lewis notes that providing access to birth control is not the only way a company can foster a more gender-equitable office culture.

“We offer our team members exceptional flexibility in their schedules as well as the ability to work from home some or all of the time, depending on the role...We also offer unlimited personal, sick and vacation days,” she said.

These policies reduce the necessity for a woman to choose between work and motherhood, as she knows that she can make family a top priority while continuing to move up in her career. This leads into the second point that my roommates and I overlooked during our dinner table conversations: We are not the only ones who would suffer if our desires for motherhood were to force us out of the workplace. We are all intelligent, savvy women with strong work ethics and unique perspectives that would provide innumerable benefits to any company where we choose to work. If a company’s office culture leaves us feeling that we are unwanted because of our desires to raise families someday, then that company is missing out not only on my roommates and me, but on the millions of young women across the country who want to both work and raise a family.

The founders of Her Campus Media (Lewis, along with former Harvard classmates Annie Wang and Windsor Hanger Western), were recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30. To me, it comes as no surprise that a company with a commitment to gender equity would see such success. As Lewis states, “We have a number of employees who are moms of young children and left their former employers to come work at Her Campus because they saw that our flexible policies enable them to fulfill their career ambitions while also accommodating and encouraging their family ambitions at the same time.”

She elaborates on this, explaining, “Having policies that support women and families enable us to hire the very best talent, regardless of where they live or what their personal time constraints may be, and this is talent that employers with stricter policies are missing out on or even pushing out.”

As a University of Michigan student, this makes perfect sense to me. College is one place in our culture in which women consistently outperform men, even though men tend to do better as soon as we enter the workplace. Every day I’m able to see the valuable contributions that women bring to every aspect of the University: class discussions, leadership roles, group projects. The men here are all thoughtful and intelligent, too, of course, but I can’t even imagine how much this University would suffer if it were to lose the perspective and hard work of women. Yet, that’s just what much of the corporate sector of the United States is: a lot of intelligent, thoughtful people, but devoid of women.

My roommates and I will be assets to any company where we choose to work, so why is it so rare to find a company that recognizes this the way Her Campus Media does? There are several years before I enter the workforce. Perhaps Her Campus Media’s policies are foreshadowing those that will be the norm in just a few years. Perhaps I can hold out hope that by the time I graduate, companies will promote a gender-equitable workplace environment in which motherhood is seen as just as unrelated to career success as fatherhood is. If so, both the company I work for and I will benefit. If not, the workplace is missing out on countless hardworking, intelligent women — and that loss is to everybody’s detriment.

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu.