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Marshall Plan for Moms founder Reshma Saujani wants to finish the fight for gender equality once and for all

COVID-19 wreaked economic havoc on women globally, especially mothers, bringing into sharp focus the policies and practices that continue to thwart gender equality at work and at home. 

This widening chasm troubles Reshma Saujani, a leading activist, founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms and Girls Who Code, and author of the forthcoming book Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work.

In an interview with the IMF’s Sabina Bhatia, Saujani reflects on the pandemic’s impact on mothers and girls and how policymakers and the private sector need to step up to ensure a better, fairer, and more equitable workplace.

F&D: Tell us about your new initiative, the Marshall Plan for Moms, and why this is a pivotal moment.

RS: Women have been crushed in the pandemic. Because the care structure is broken, many had to supplement their paid labor with unpaid labor. Globally, women started leaving the labor force because it was untenable. The December 2020 jobs report by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that only women, especially women of color, lost their jobs. I looked at the report and thought, “well, someone’s got to have a plan.” We can’t lose 30 years of progress in nine months.

I asked mothers in my parent-teacher association what they needed to return to work. They needed cash, paid leave, and—most important—affordable childcare. They also needed retraining. Data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women are three to five times more likely than men to hold part-time or low-wage jobs. The Marshall Plan for Moms originated from those conversations.

We put out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, followed by letters from prominent women and men telling the United States Congress that mothers don’t work for free. Since then, we have had a few bills introduced in Congress calling for a Marshall Plan for Moms.

We also provided a playbook to employers on how to bring women back to work. The Marshall Plan is not just a government intervention; the private sector and families need to stand up too. I want to finish this fight once and for all.

F&D: Many women, especially in developing economies, are in the informal economy. What do you think needs to be done to get them back to work?

RS: In the developing world, three major things need to be done. First, cash payments for unpaid labor. Women in the informal economy perform, on average, 86 percent of unpaid labor at home. Governments should compensate women for it. Second, women in the informal sector need benefits such as health care, subsidized childcare, and paid leave. Finally, we should have a global conversation around gender equality at home. The Philippines had an amazing campaign, Laundry Love, encouraging more men to do the laundry. Many women remain in the informal sector because of unpaid work at home. We can change that with an equal division of unpaid work. Governments should implement plans and programs to achieve that balance.

F&D: If you had one request for finance ministers, what would that be?

RS: We cannot recover if we leave half of our populations behind. Every finance minister should appoint a women’s jobs czar to look at how to get women back to work. Women have always had to make unconscionable choices to participate in the workforce. Let’s not take another 50 or 100 years to make progress in gender equality.

F&D: We hear a lot about labor shortages. In this moment, women have a lot of bargaining power. What should they be asking for?

RS: Women need either flexibility or predictability. Many of us had to hide our children because it seemed like a lack of commitment to the job. Mothers are paid less than fathers for the same work. Offering flexibility can change this. Second, companies should provide affordable childcare. Every study has shown that a child’s first four years are critical. If we’re providing public education, we should provide public childcare too. We should pay for that as a society. The private sector should lead the way to show they value their workers. This should happen for both salaried and hourly employees.

F&D: What should employers do to build a better workplace that is flexible and predictable for parents but works for employers too?

RS: Companies must understand there is no going back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. Before the pandemic, I used to spend 45 minutes a day with my kids, and I was okay with that. I’m never going back. Today, I am more productive and am able to take my son to his music class. It’s a myth that having face time and sitting at a desk are the only ways of measuring productivity.

From a gender equality perspective, companies should tie performance reviews and salary compensation to whether the men in their offices take paternity leave. It helps change the gender roles at home.

F&D: As a manager yourself, how are you supporting the women who work with you?

RS: We allow people to set their own hours. There is no motherhood penalty. And we offer childcare benefits to families. Typically, childcare shouldn’t be more than 7 percent of income, but it’s vastly more expensive.

F&D: You started Girls Who Code as a way of bridging gender inequities in the tech sector. Are you worried that the digital gender divide has worsened in the pandemic?

RS: Globally, this was a devastating year for students. Many were getting Wi-Fi in Burger King parking lots or sharing a device among a family of three. Mothers were essential workers; they couldn’t help them log on to school. We don’t talk enough about having a two-generational strategy toward poverty alleviation. Nearly 1.6 million girls are also caretakers for their siblings or others. It interferes with their ability to study. We don’t have a plan for that.

At Girls Who Code, we have always focused on how to teach the most vulnerable. We taught more girls of color and those below the poverty line because we innovated. We saw virtual learning as an opportunity. We should be figuring out how every child, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, can have high-speed internet and the opportunity to learn.

And it shouldn't be a choice between your son and daughter; it should be both. If we want to solve COVID-19, climate, and cancer, girls must learn, lead, and educate. We must meet this moment by not only fixing the lack of support structures, but also by ensuring that we don’t lose the progress achieved in girls’ education. Every organization and government should ensure that the girls in their community are learning at the same rate as boys.

F&D: In a recent podcast, you said, “Surround yourself with rejection; you will immunize yourself from the fear of failure.” Tell us about your experience with failure and how you dealt with it.

RS: I am the daughter of refugees. Because the United States saved my parents’ lives, I wanted a life of service. After graduating with $300,000 in student loan debt, I worked in finance but felt stuck. I decided, with my father’s blessing, to quit my job and run for the US Congress. I was the first South Asian American woman to do so. We raised $50,000 from Indian aunties happy about an Indian girl running. I lost spectacularly. But when I woke up the next morning, I thought, “I’m not broken.” Many of us think that if we try something new and fail, it will break us. We give up even before we try. Losing that race, which I dreamt about since I was a girl, made me ask myself, “What are the other things I thought I couldn’t do?” It inspired me to start Girls Who Code. The beauty of coding is that it is an iterative process; it teaches you to fail. It builds bravery. Failure is something we should be teaching, but it must be accessible to all. In Silicon Valley, failure is very accessible if you’re a male, white or Asian, but not if you’re a woman or a person of color. We must shift this notion of who gets to fail and who doesn’t.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  


SABINA BHATIA is deputy secretary of the IMF.

Opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.