Tech companies shower their employees with perks like dry cleaning, massages and haircuts. But there is one group for whom working at a tech company can be much more difficult than working elsewhere: parents.
Facebook hosts all-night hackathons. Google has weekend laser tag retreats. Many startups have no parental leave policy at all, so the first employee to have a baby has to ask the company to create one.
Then there are the subtler messages. Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, was vocal about returning to work two weeks after she gave birth. Later, Yahoo told employees they could no longer work from home. Workers with children say they are often the only such employees on teams of 20-somethings.
The strains around these issues have burst into public view in recent weeks. In a gender discrimination trial against Kleiner Perkins, a top venture capital firm, two former partners said they were declined board seats because they were pregnant or going on maternity leave. In a lawsuit against Facebook, a former technology partner said her boss admonished her for volunteering at her child’s school one day a month, which she said was allowed by company policy. Microsoft mandated sick leave among its contractors after complaints that some were not given such benefits.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“The culture is not necessarily friendly to families, and I think that’s not really realized,” said Bret Taylor, former chief technology officer at Facebook and co-founder of a startup called Quip.
That Silicon Valley - known for being on the forefront not just of technology but also of workplace policy - creates so many difficulties for working parents highlights a vexing problem for the U.S. economy. The United States is arguably struggling to adjust to the realities of modern family life more than any other affluent country.
Work over family?
The American workplace has always prized people who prioritize work over family, and European countries have long had more generous policies for working parents. But in the last two decades, that gap has widened significantly. Other developed countries have expanded benefits like paid parental leave and child care, while the United States has not.
The absence of such policies here creates obvious advantages for companies, reducing costs and increasing production. But for workers - most of whom have children, aging parents or both, and many of whom are single parents - the downsides can be enormous, whether they work in high finance or hourly labor. Many workers today - blue-collar and white-collar alike - believe they must choose between career and family.
The share of women in their 30s and 40s who work, which was once higher in the U.S. than in Canada, Australia, Japan and much of Europe, has fallen behind. The widening gap in policies is a major reason for the change, said Francine Blau, a Cornell University economist, and other researchers. And it is not a challenge just for women: 37 percent of nonworking men 25 to 54 say family responsibilities are a reason they are not working, according to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
More broadly, some economists say, the lack of family-focused policies reflects the power imbalance between companies and workers in the U.S. economy today. The share of economic output flowing to corporate profits has surged, while employee compensation has stagnated.
Calling commitment in question
The technology industry is a striking example because it attracts some of the country’s smartest people, many of whom have far more bargaining power than most workers. Silicon Valley also has outsize cultural significance, as the face of U.S. ingenuity and a magnet for global talent.
But it is also a place that often expects total commitment to work. That grows from the notion that in tech, unlike in other industries, companies become overnight successes, and believe their work is changing the world.
“People who give you millions of dollars for nothing but an idea at the very least expect your complete commitment to that idea,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, the online real estate brokerage. “That is why nobody, not even the most committed parent, talks about a family-friendly workplace in, say, an investor pitch deck.”
Startups are unlikely to have parental policies because they are more focused on growing as quickly as possible. Many big tech companies try to ease the way for new parents, at least officially - but that does not necessarily filter down to company culture.
They have some of the most generous policies in corporate America for the period after a child is born, like four months of paid leave and a $4,000 baby stipend at Facebook. There are high-profile examples of women with children who have climbed the corporate ladder in tech. Mayer was pregnant when she became chief executive of Yahoo, and Susan Wojcicki, chief executive of YouTube, recently had her fifth child.
But these examples exaggerate how family-friendly tech companies are, especially after the newborn phase. The executives have privileges not available to typical workers (Mayer built a nursery next to her office.) Some benefits, like free meals and on-site laundry, have a flip side of discouraging people from leaving. And many parents say that office culture - which can, for example, reward people based on how many lines of code they can write per week - does not support parents.
“I’ve seen some of what I would call hero culture, where people are doing 20 hours a day to get this or that done at all costs,” said Max Schireson, the former chief executive of a database software company called MongoDB. He became the talk of Silicon Valley last summer when he wrote a blog post saying he was stepping down to spend more time with his three children. He had been flying 300,000 miles a year and was gone when his son had emergency surgery.
“Frankly what I’ve seen is just forgetting the human aspect of it,” he said.
Not a good ‘culture fit’
Though it’s off limits for interviewers to ask candidates whether they have children, tech companies use euphemisms to indicate that parents or older employees are not welcome, said a tech executive who would speak only anonymously. They say people are not a good “culture fit” and cannot “align on priorities” or make it in a “rapidly moving company.” The translation, he said: “People who are not exactly like us.”
“When people have kids, they have other priorities - and startups can be pretty brutal about not having other priorities,” the executive said.
“Young people just have simpler lives,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, said in a talk to would-be entrepreneurs in 2007, when he was 23. “We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”
That laser focus served Facebook well. In tech, as in many jobs, long hours, commitment and ambition are essential. But technical jobs are also more easily done on flexible hours, economists say. And there are business downsides to taking work to an extreme.
“I’ve seen the people who are doing that sprint sometimes collapse before making it to the finish line,” Schireson said. “Building a significant company takes time.”
As Silicon Valley ages, and 20-something entrepreneurs become 30-something parents, the culture is beginning to change. Offering a family-friendly workplace has become a recruiting strategy.
The Happy Home Co., a home repair startup, specifically recruits parents. “Some of the most qualified, talented and passionate people in the valley are often overlooked by startups for not being a ‘cultural fit,' which is often code for ‘too old, too much of a parent, too female, too different,’” said Doug Ludlow, its co-founder.
At Taylor’s company, Quip, which makes workplace collaboration software, the founders tell interviewees that they have children and leave at 5:30 p.m. If he wants to work later, Taylor said, he goes home so other employees don’t feel obligated to stay.
“It’s not like we’re visionary - we’re just older,” he said. “It really helps us recruit people who were concerned about the culture at other companies.”
In some ways, an aging Silicon Valley is beginning to look more like the rest of corporate America, where most workers have families. The challenge is retaining the youthful optimism that they can do the impossible - while also showing their employees that working and having families is realistic.