Reshma Saujani is best known for the organization she founded, Girls Who Code, which fights gender inequality in STEM education. Now, after seeing how many women have been forced out of the workforce to the point where women’s participation in the workplace has been set back by an entire generation, Saujani is focusing his efforts on another group: moms.
Saujani has proposed a Marshall Plan for Moms that includes solutions for mothers who want to participate in the workforce, solutions that will make childcare more affordable and, more controversially, a plan for those who Saujani says should be compensated for the unpaid work of being a full-time carer.
Her new book “Pay Up” details her personal story, where the #GirlBoss and Lean In (and herself) movements went wrong, and shares the details of her plan to give all mothers the support they need. need, regardless of their employment status. . Just this morning, she released a tongue-in-cheek video focusing on a well-known phenomenon: mother guilt. I spoke to her about her journey, some of the stories she shares in her book as well as her lifelong mission to fight for equality for women and girls despite enormous odds.
Amy Shoenthal: Let’s go back in time a bit. You talk openly about your run for Congress in 2009. You called it a “spectacular loss.” Can you talk about this experience and explain why it led you to create Girls Who Code?
Reshma Saujani: The reason it was such a spectacular loss is because I really thought I was going to win. I truly believed that I could shake all hands and meet all voters. And it wasn’t even close. I got less than 19% of the vote. Everyone was talking about it and not in a good way. It was a very public chess show.
But I think that’s why it was so powerful for me, it changed my life so much. Because if I hadn’t lost that way, I don’t think I would have ever started Girls Who Code. It made me realize that failure won’t break you. You can try really hard stuff, even if you’re not an expert.
It’s the same with the Marshall Plan for moms. I remember when we first suggested that every mother (regardless of employment status) should receive $2,400 per month. People were like, well, how did you do the math? Are you an economist? What do you know about that?
Some people wouldn’t even put the number there for fear of those exact questions. But I knew these questions were coming, just as I knew I was not an economist. But after everything I’ve been through, I was just like “bring it on”.
I’ve always been the good Indian girl, never drawn outside the lines, never tried anything I didn’t think would work. I applied three times to Yale Law School before being admitted. This year, I am Yale’s first lecturer.
Shoenthal: One of your most defining achievements (and one of your most prolific quotes) was that “having it all” is really just a euphemism for “doing it all”. Tell me about “The Big Lie”.
Saujani: I’ve spent the last ten years telling girls to storm the corner office. To lean very hard and fight your way to the top. I spoke at 200 events a year. At each of these events, someone would raise their hand and ask me how I balance being a mother and CEO. I looked at them, annoyed. I literally waved at one of them, dismissing the question. I told people to keep being brave. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the pandemic, when I was trying to run an organization with two small children at home, that I realized how wrong I had been.
You can’t color code your calendar with equal. You can’t just find a mentor or a sponsor, you can’t just be “brave, not perfect.” We need to stop trying to fix women and fix the system. And it’s really difficult. Fixing women is so deeply rooted in our DNA.
Think of all the Women’s History Month programming and all the messages in books and TED talks that tell us to “do our power pose” or “bend over.” Everything says, “you’re broken, but if you do this thing, you’ll get to the top.” Women have been hard-wired to think there’s something wrong with them since middle school. Millions of us go to therapy every day because of it. The trauma will be generational and it will be really hard to convert. But we have to start now. The children look at you and repeat you. If you think you’re not enough or putting yourself down, they see it. And they will do the same.
Today I went to my son’s class. All the children do Wordle in the morning.
Shoenthal: Isn’t he in first year??
Saujani: I was blown away too. But it was really cool to see all the girls hands immediately shoot up. They had full confidence. I was just like, how can I keep you like this? They are not yet exposed to social media or the things we read. Men don’t read the trust code. But you know what? We don’t need it either. These little girls don’t need it. They have a lot of confidence.
Shoenthal: I take notes for my article, but also for the way I have to present myself in front of my daughter. Tell me about the origins of the Marshall Plan for moms. How did that come together in those early days?
Saujani: As an activist, I am a strong believer in thought leadership. I just wrote a Time article about how we keep having the same conversation about getting back to the office. Why do only white guys want to go back? I have these observations, I think about them, I go to my team to talk about what I see, and then I write.
That’s really what happened with the Marshall Plan for moms. It was around September 2020 once school closures were announced again, which really, really upset me. My son was starting kindergarten in New York public schools. I was just shocked that they could make that kind of decision without consulting the very people who were going to have to connect with their kids. In kindergarten, no way he will log on to school without me.
I couldn’t believe a decision maker could make such a decision and I just couldn’t forget the implications of that decision.
As CEO of Girls Who Code, the issue we tried to address was gender parity in tech. For 10 years I told people how in the 1980s we were pretty much at gender parity in the workforce. And then we chased the women. And we were there again in 2020. We started the year with 51% of the workforce being women, and once again we drove women out. Now we’re back to where we were in 1989. So I kept thinking, okay, where’s the plan? Someone has to come up with a plan. I waited for the plan. And there was nothing.
So I just wrote the plan myself. It started like this editorial. When I first wrote it, I couldn’t convince anyone to publish it. The New York Times passed, everyone passed. To finish The hill took it. What fired me up was reading the comments section. I didn’t realize motherhood was so controversial. People on the left said: ‘And the dads?’ Even though there were many more millions of jobs lost for mothers, they still asked about fathers. Then the people on the right said, “You chose to be a mom, so you’re the one doing it.” You get nothing.
It became so clear to me that even though I had spent my whole life fighting for women’s equality, I was fighting to bring about the wrong kinds of change. 86% of women will be mothers at some point in the working population. This is how women’s equality is threatened. It must be shouted. It is worth fighting for, fixing and resolving.
At one point, my cheeky CMO Deborah Singer suggested running an ad in the New York Times that read like a letter to the president. To our surprise, we signed up all of these really eminent women. We didn’t have a communication plan, we just thought we’d put an ad in the newspaper and that’s it. We were blown away when it went viral.
Shoenthal: You are someone who has endured countless setbacks. I’m so fascinated because you always come back seemingly stronger than ever, with one brilliant idea after another about how we can all make society better for everyone. What do you think allows you to do this?
Saujani: I rise like a Phoenix from my ashes. We say in Hinduism, ‘What is your Dharma?’ I am very spiritual. I was put on this earth to be a warrior. When I see someone being taken advantage of or hurt, I get that feeling – that’s what I have with daughters, now with mothers.
I remember reading this comments section (from the original editorial in The Hill) and just wondering why do people hate moms so much? Why is it so hard for us to just subsidize child care? Why do we force mothers to make such unacceptable choices? Why is my inbox full of these emails from women who just want to be seen and helped?
We bailed out the airlines, but we didn’t bail out the mothers.
Even as we see this trauma explained in article after article of rising alcohol levels, rising addictions at all, rising suicide rates, mothers are crying out for help, and we can’t not do it. There is no support, there is no recognition.
Shoenthal: Your rage is incredibly productive.
Saujani: I do not know how to operate otherwise. That’s how I deal. My friend teased me and said, when Reshma gets serious about something, get out of her way.
Shoenthal: You have launched an incredible movement and we thank you for it. Now, how can the rest of us carry the torch?
Saujani: If we don’t find a way to advocate for change, this moment will slip away and we will regret it. We must take action. So sign up for Marshall Plan for Moms, buy the book, become a Pay Up advocate. We must move from crisis to power, and we can.