Taking a cue from the Marshall Plan, a post-World War II program enacted by the United States to help a devastated Europe get back on its feet, the founder of Girls Who Code is making the case for a comparable solution-oriented and fast-action approach to child care problems in the wake of COVID.
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
Virginia Davis — mom to a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old — has declared herself a warrior in the fight for women to have fair, generous, employer-sponsored child care benefits so moms can succeed in work and in their personal lives.
“It has become a big passion of mine,” said Davis, vice president of employee experience for consumer financial services company Synchrony.
The company, with 18,000 employees, is among the first to sign on to the National Business Coalition for Child Care, launched by the nonprofit Marshall Plan for Moms. The Marshall Plan offers a playbook for businesses but allows companies leeway to enact their own child care and mom-supportive policies.
The Marshall Plan for Moms, launched in January 2021, also started from a mom’s outrage. Reshma Saujani, J.D., CEO and founder of the organization, had founded Girls Who Code 10 years ago to help close the tech industry’s gender gap.
“In the middle of the pandemic, I was raising a newborn and a kindergartner,” said Saujani, a Yale-educated attorney, political organizer, and, 12 years ago, the first Indian American woman to run for the U.S. Congress. Her two sons are now ages 2 and 7.
She kept working 16 hours a day during the COVID pandemic because the Girls Who Code programs had been based in schools, colleges, and companies that shut down. “We had to revamp all of our programming from scratch,” Saujani said. At the same time, she had to work with her own staff, which consists largely of parents of young children.
“We need employers to do their part to rebuild the workplace from the ground up, with gender equity embedded in the foundation. And we need, as a society, to value women’s labor, at work and at home.”
–Reshma Saujani, J.D., CEO and founder, Marshall Plan for Moms; founder, Girls Who Code; author
“I saw that 11 million women had been pushed out of the workforce [during COVID],” she said. “I started thinking, ‘What’s the plan to help these women get back to work?’ There was no organization to oversee this.”
Saujani said she started the Marshall Plan to advocate expanded child care, gender-neutral paid leave, and ending the motherhood penalty, the latter denoting that women can be stereotyped as less dedicated or qualified after they become mothers.
About 113 million women ages 25–54 with partners and small children were out of the global workforce in 2020, including more than 2 million mothers who left the workforce during the pandemic, according to the International Labour Organization.
And in the United States, there are 74,000 fewer child care workers now than before the pandemic.
Child care advocacy can start in the workplace
Davis, who works out of her employer Synchrony’s Charlotte, North Carolina, office, said she was motivated to become an advocate for working mothers because of the injustice of “women having to pick between their careers and taking care of their families.”
“Leaving the workforce because it’s more cost-effective than working and paying for child care, or because there’s no access to day care” is simply unfair and unacceptable, Davis said. “We should have workplaces that support us.”
She knows the situation acutely. Davis and her husband, a captain in the U.S. Army Special Forces National Guard who works full time in banking corporate security, never know when he will be deployed. And he must train in the National Guard for several weeks each year.
The couple started looking for child care in the first trimester of both her first and second pregnancies because caregivers book up that far in advance of a birth, and still suffer from worker shortages.
“It’s around normalizing parental leave. It takes all industries, and it takes increasing expectations for companies in how we support working moms. [Doing so] helps us attract and retain the best talent.”
–Virginia Davis, vice president, employee experience, Synchrony
Davis’ situation is exactly what the Marshall Plan for Moms aims to address. The plan calls for supportive workplaces, paid leave policies, rebuilding of the child care industry, and gender and racial pay equities that “will begin to address the systemic racism and gender inequality that has forced women out of the workforce.”
“It’s around normalizing parental leave,” Davis said. “It takes all industries, and it takes increasing expectations for companies in how we support working moms. [Doing so] helps us attract and retain the best talent.”
Synchrony applies Agile business practices used in software development to listen, respond, and adapt to better meet the needs of working parents, said another company champion of the effort, Carol Juel, Synchrony’s executive vice president and chief technology and operating officer.
Juel, Davis, and Synchrony’s human resources leaders, meanwhile, have helped fashion unique benefits for moms at their workplace, including:
- A concierge service that helps Synchrony parents quickly find child care providers. Employees also have the option of a child care reimbursement program they can use to pay for any caregiver — a family member, a neighbor, a babysitter — so they can choose the best provider and ensure they get backup emergency child care.
- Paid parental leave of 12 weeks for all new parents and an additional 10 weeks for birthing parents. The benefit covers all partners.
- Twelve free well-being coaches dedicated to helping company employees and their families; webinar sessions with experts on topics ranging from hybrid schooling, virtual learning, and supporting children with special needs, as well as “ask the medical experts” calls with mental health professionals and family psychologists.
- Sabbatical and employee balance programs that let employees reduce their schedules or take up to 12 months leave while retaining benefits. The leave covers a variety of needs, from taking care of family to pursuing personal growth.
“During the COVID pandemic, I was pregnant with my now-2-year-old, and my husband was deployed for six months to Africa,” Davis said. “I got support from family, and my managers and peers supported me. I had easy access to the wellness coaches. I feel grateful to have these benefits.”
Besides Synchrony, members of the National Business Coalition for Child Care include Etsy, Athletes Unlimited, Fast Retailing, Patagonia, Harvard University, Gibson Dunn law firm, and Archewell, the latter founded by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, to run a foundation dedicated to “uplift and unite communities” one act of compassion at a time.
To further the cause, the Marshall Plan for Moms has issued a playbook for employers, “Making Workplaces Work for Moms: Building a Mom-Friendly Workplace for the Post-Pandemic Future” (see sidebar).
“We cannot just flip a switch and recover the 30 years of progress we lost on women’s workforce participation overnight,” Saujani said. “We need to acknowledge that the system never worked for working moms in the first place. We need employers to do their part to rebuild the workplace from the ground up, with gender equity embedded in the foundation. And we need, as a society, to value women’s labor, at work and at home.”
Saujani has firsthand experience in child care’s woeful history. She grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburban village northwest of Chicago, as a latchkey child who faced discrimination in the 1980s as the daughter of Indian immigrants. By 2020, Indian immigrants made up 37% of all immigrants in the village.
Saujani has written several books, including Brave, not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder and Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think).
Federal legislation could ensure equity in child care
Saujani is also seeking to ensure affordable, high-quality child care through a federal law, such as what President Joe Biden called for in his Build Back Better plan. The plan passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Senate never voted on it, instead passing a slimmed-down version called the Inflation Reduction Act.
“The first five years of everyone’s life are very impactful and have decades of ripple effects,” said Aaron Sojourner, Ph.D., a senior researcher with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit research center based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who has delved into the child care dilemma.
The Marshall Plan for Moms Playbook
The playbook offers employers 10 ways to make the workplace (finally) work for working moms:
- Give moms maximum control over their schedules by improving flexibility and predictability.
- Support moms with access to and information about affordable child care.
- Help balance gender dynamics and unpaid labor in the home by incentivizing paternity leave.
- Prioritize moms’ mental health, normalizing paid time off and promoting well-being.
- Close the gender pay gap and pay all moms a living wage.
- Root out the motherhood penalty (penalizing female employees for having kids).
- Don’t rush new moms back to work before they are ready.
- Provide more on-ramps, such as returnships and other programs, to bring moms back.
- Guarantee paid sick leave so moms can take care of themselves and their families.
- Advocate publicly for policies that benefit moms, including through lobbying efforts.
“Yet we [in the United States] invest very little in the first five years of kids’ lives, which is precisely when families have the least resources” because of young parents’ generally lower lifetime earnings, savings, and credit scores, he said.
The U.S. invests $1,500 per child per year in early child care across all levels of local, state, and federal aid.
Dr. Sojourner and his colleagues’ research, titled “An Equilibrium Model of the Impact of Increased Public Investment in Early Childhood Education,” also showed that the costs of child care need not skyrocket when taxpayers subsidize it.
The economic modeling showed wages for child care providers without bachelor’s degrees would increase from $12 to $13.50 an hour, and wages for those with bachelor’s degrees would increase from $19 to $24.50 an hour.
A massive federal investment in child care also would boost parents’ ability to work outside of the home, and especially for the lowest-income parents, the research showed.
For mothers, full-time employment for those who are middle-class would jump by 9 percentage points if they had quality, affordable child care, while it would increase by a whopping 18 percentage points for the poorest mothers, the research showed. “That means a lot more increase in the labor supply in the broader economy,” Dr. Sojourner said. “That’s not just important for family incomes. It’s also important for increasing the economy’s productive capacity and growth.”
When U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, J.D., D-N.Y., introduced a congressional resolution supporting the Marshall Plan, she said, “Moms throughout America are screaming out for help. Moms — especially moms of color — have been pushed to the brink of economic, social, and emotional collapse due to the COVID-19 crisis, and the Marshall Plan for Moms is a blueprint to make sure moms have a fighting chance, and that they are protected against any future economic calamities.
“That is why I am also pleased that elements of our Marshall Plan for Moms are reflected in the American Rescue Act such as increased funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the child care industry, schools, internet access for students, and expanding the child tax credit and unemployment insurance benefits,” she said.
Saujani said she is optimistic that expanded child care and parental benefits can gain bipartisan support in Congress. “It’s a crisis — not just for families but for employers,” she said.
Short of a federal government policy breakthrough, which appears unlikely given today’s political polarization, states and cities are moving to enact their own policies.
Will this mean that one day states and municipalities will compete for remote workers based on their child care policies? In Washington, D.C., for example, local officials approved a plan to give child care workers one-time payments from $10,000 to $14,000 to boost their salaries.
They acted largely because, nationwide, the child care workforce is still 9% below pre-pandemic levels, with workers being wooed away by companies such as Amazon that offer higher hourly wages than the average child care worker makes, as well as other benefits such as health care and tuition assistance.
Meanwhile, states such as Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and New Mexico are advancing policies to expand and enhance child care.
“For so long, we think, after we have had a child, ‘That’s my problem. I have to suffer, be a martyr and not expect anything from anyone,’” Saujani said.
“We — moms, dads, and allies — have to demand [child care equity].”