It's an appealing story, a modern day conversion narrative with a free-market twist. Writing for Fortune, tech entrepreneur Katharine Zaleski recounts how she went from being horrible to working mothers to having a child and realizing the error of her ways. She even builds a business designed to help them. The piece has contrition, salacious office-gossip, and bold Oprah-worthy redemption. No wonder it has dominated social media feeds since publication. How unfortunate, then, that it offers so little in the way of actual solutions.
Zaleski's tale is an illustration of what happens when working parents have to rely on individuals, not laws, to protect them. Zaleski was horrible to working mothers, and then she had a kid; now she is urging the younger versions of herself, the "hardliners" she stills see in the tech field, to be more understanding. This is a nice gesture, but a bad plan.
It can be hard, really hard, for some people to understand the dynamics of family life before they have kids of their own — if they ever do. I'm all for encouraging empathy, but it's not a reliable method of protecting anyone from anything. Working parents, particularly women, need more than the goodwill of their colleagues to help them succeed; they need a strong legal infrastructure.
This would include more protections for pregnant and breastfeeding women at work, as well as universal parental leave and sick days. A more utopian vision might include childcare for all or a more structured work week, whether that means limiting hours on the clock or guaranteeing blue collar and service workers a reasonable schedule in advance. Without at least some of these protections, there's a good chance the participation of women in the workforce will continue to decline, as it has over the last decade.
The other problem with Zaleski's vision is how shortsighted it is. She says that when she had a child she was frustrated by her choices: either put up with "a male-dominated work culture" or "pull back on hours and give up the career built over the last 10 years." And so she created a third option, and began to work on a company that matches women with tech jobs that can be done from home.
More choices are of course a good thing and it is unfair to burden any one person with a creating a master solution. Still, think of how small a fix this is. Telecommuting is a concession, not a big win. It's a meal of cold leftovers when it's about time working mothers are served a nice, hot steak.
There is little in the way of advancement when a woman is working remotely. I don't see how the pathetic ratio of male to female CEOs could change with this model, nor I do see how workplaces would have much incentive to become more adaptable to working parents' needs when all the mommies just work flexible schedules from home.
The other issue with women embracing this flexibility is that with it often comes fewer protections. Zaleski makes no mention about paid maternity leave, sick days, or even paid vacation for the jobs she helps place women in. Surely, when pitching a big solution to the problem of parents in the workplace, these issues should be at least mentioned, if not addressed head on.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Zaleski's apology and her new company are that they both put the onus of work/life balance on the shoulders of women. Telling young women to be nice to their colleagues who are mothers, and telling mothers that working from home is the answer, is to imply that, like Dorothy, we've had the power to make these changes on our own all along. We didn't, and we still don't. It is with that in mind that we need to take our next steps.