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Book Club - Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It's Different Than You Think)

Each month, we read a book and hold a discussion night to talk about our takeaways from the book.

Cover of the book Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It's Different Than You Think by Reshma Saujani

For our March book club, we read Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think) by Reshma Saujani. Saujani is an activist, speaker, and founder of the organization Girls Who Code.

The book outlines why our current rhetoric that women just need to try harder or be more organized to “have it all” isn’t working and never will. The entire corporate and social system is set up in a way that makes it basically impossible for mothers to balance their career and family life without getting burned out. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated some of the biggest weakness in our social structure and Saujani declares now is the time to fix these problems.

As the mother of two young children who made the decision to become a stay at home mom when my oldest was born, this book really resonated with me. The cost of childcare would basically wipe out my income, so it made the most sense for my family for me to stay home. But that came at the cost of my career.

While I do some freelance work (like writing for this blog), I have struggled with feeling like I’m “lesser” than other women because I don’t work outside the home. As someone who was driven to achieve, I never envisioned myself becoming a stay at home mom. I work every day to overcome my biases that my fellow stay at home moms are taking the “easy” way out or aren’t ambitious. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with a toddler knows that it certainly isn’t the easy way!

Overall, Saujani addresses the issues facing working mothers from a number of angles. While I agree with most of what she said, I do think many of the issues are too deeply entrenched to be solved by the suggestions in a 200 page book. However, it’s a good starting point, so let’s dive in to the book’s key takeaways.

1) The System Has to Change

In the first few chapters of the book, Saujani describes how she used to be a big proponent of encouraging women to go for it and break glass ceilings - regardless of their status as mothers or not. But once she became a mother herself, she realized what she had been preaching simply isn’t sustainable in our current society.

No matter how successful in their careers, most women still default to primary caregiver and household manager, meaning they must juggle multiple full time jobs. In the introduction, the author says, “Yes, we can have big jobs. Yes, we can have families. But no, we cannot have both in the current paradigm that exists in this country - at least not without damaging our partnerships, our career trajectory and earnings potential, the well-being of our kids, and our own mental and physical health.” In other words, if you become a mother, something has to give somewhere in your life.

Many mothers choose to leave their career and stay home. This is damaging not only to the women who feel they have no choice but to stay home, but also to businesses and our economy. Businesses lose out on millions of potential employees and the innovation that comes from diversity. One statistic included in the book notes, “…the United States could increase its gross domestic product (GDP) by $1.6 trillion if women in America entered and remained in the workplace at a rate equal to that of women in Norway, where the government subsidizes childcare.”

The pandemic only made these difficulties worse. When schools were closed, many women were forced to leave the workforce to take on the role of teacher. And single mothers or women who could not afford to stay home were put into even more difficult situations. The support system, which was already inadequate, collapsed and it still hasn’t recovered.

If women want to be in the workforce without having to make impossible compromises, things have to change drastically and rapidly. And women being part of the workforce isn’t just a nice thing to have - it’s critical. Women deserve to have the same opportunities as men, and our economy cannot survive such a large portion of the population not working.

2) It’s Not Only Up to Women

This book is a call to arms to change the way women work and how they are supported. But it’s also very clear that it isn’t all up to women to fix things. In fact, it can’t be fixed by women alone. It will take all of us, employers, and the government to make the necessary changes to support women.

While Saujani does offer suggestions for things women can do to help balance their lives a little better, like setting strong boundaries and letting go of perfectionism, there are also many suggestions for employers.

She suggests employers can do things like allow more flexible scheduling, offer childcare assistance, and provide paid maternity leave. Many of the suggestions she makes are standard in other countries, but face fierce opposition in the US. I particularly like how she includes statistics and details about how these changes will help the businesses themselves and the overall economy. Even if you can’t convince people to care about women and mothers, perhaps they can be convinced with financial facts.

She also outlines plans for public policies needed to provide additional support to mothers. The three she focuses on are: affordable childcare, guaranteed and paid parental leave, and continued cash payments to parents (to pay for the unappreciated household labor).

I think changing the laws will be most difficult of her suggestions, although it also would bring the biggest benefit to millions of people. The vast majority of countries in the world already offer affordable childcare and paid parental leave, so it is past time for the United States to catch up. However, the contentious state of politics in the country leaves me less than hopeful these changes will happen any time soon.

3) “Women’s” Work Has Value

It’s always good to have a reminder that what is traditionally considered “women’s” work has value just like any other type of paid work. This includes tasks like childcare, cooking, cleaning, taking care of elderly family members, and coordinating an endless number of household tasks. Women who stay at home with children are often looked down on. Women who work outside of the home often have a second full time job worth of work to do when they get home.

This work is rarely appreciated even though our society literally could not function without it being completed by someone. In Chapter 3, Saujani shares the startling statistic that “…research released by Oxfam show[s] that if American women made minimum wage for the work they did around the house and caring for relatives they would have earned $1.5 trillion in 2019. Globally, the value of that unpaid labor would have been close to $10.9 trillion.”

To remedy this problem, Saujani suggests that the government should pay a monthly stipend to mothers to compensate for this “invisible” work. While I’m on board with most of the suggestions in the book, this is the one I had the most difficulty with. The logistics alone makes it probably the most unlikely of the suggestions in the book to be implemented. However, I applaud the fact that Saujani goes as far as to quantify the unpaid labor that so many women do every day.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected going in, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and found it full of ideas on how we can improve the lives of mothers, especially those who work outside the home. I hope that at least some of these ideas can be implemented to help mothers who work reduce the strain and help mothers who want to work have the opportunity to enter (or reenter) the workforce.

What did you think of the book? We want to hear your thoughts, so become a site member and share in the comments below!

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Jenn Montague
Jenn Montague

Elysse, I'm so glad you are able to work with JennQuest and support us with our "Freelance" work such as our weekly blog. Thank you for sharing your views on this topic as a mother. Your viewpoint is valued and so are you! As someone who's children has been the many team-members I've led - I found myself appreciating the reminders and points of how those of us without children need to support the mothers we work with and be their ally.

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