The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moms are punished in the workplace, even when we own the business

(Debra McClinton/Getty)

It is 11 p.m. My phone battery is dying. I am sitting at Gate A10 at San Francisco International Airport holding my 9-week-old baby, surrounded by a laptop and a breast pump. A voice overhead announces that my flight will take off two hours and 10 minutes late. I know immediately how I will use the time. I recently started a company that provides shared workspaces and events targeted to women, and the work is endless; eight months after launch, I have 15 employees and an entire business to grow and manage. But there is also the issue of the baby in my lap. I compromise and dictate a to-do list into my phone.

The average age of a tech entrepreneur at their company’s founding is 39. This is an inconvenient age for a family’s primary caretaker, particularly for a caretaker also tasked with gestation, birth and nursing. Take me, for example: I had three daughters in the span of three years and 12 days. But what I found even more challenging than starting a company while surviving a toddler’s sleep regression and my first-trimester morning sickness was my attempt to somehow “have it all” in today’s outdated, inflexible corporate America.

How the idea of ‘having it all’ makes women feel terrible about themselves

We talk often about the glass ceiling but less about the “maternal wall,” the barrier built by discrimination against working mothers. I was a successful corporate litigator for a decade, working for elite law firms and Fortune 500 companies. When I became a mother, my commitment was questioned: If I could not be at my desk every day from 9 to 6, could I do the job? If I worked at home on a Tuesday, was I really working? What finally became my breaking point wasn’t unique. On parental leave with my second baby, I asked my boss to consider me for an open position that would have been a promotion. He looked at me across a desk. I don’t know who he saw: A tired mother? An accomplished attorney? The end of a story? He said, “We’ve discussed it internally, and it isn’t the right time because you’ve just had a baby.” I smiled to try to hide my disappointment. And my shock.

I did not report the incident to anyone because I feared retaliation, and because I saw my boss as a “good guy” and did not want to “hurt” him. Here’s the thing, though: Even “good guys” can be wrong. And all men benefit from an America where men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Indeed, women are 15 percent less likely than men to be promoted — and a mother is half as likely to be promoted as a childless woman.

We sent women to work in this country decades ago as we embraced feminism. History pretends that we invited them to the table. But actually, we let them into the room without giving them a seat, let alone a chance to sit down. This tightrope walk is nearly impossible: Forty-three percent of highly trained professional women with children leave the workforce at some point in their careers. The system is broken, and we know it. Yet we do nothing. Instead, we celebrate the woman who can juggle a career and children with grace, as if this is some sort of achievement. It shouldn’t have to be.

I tried to make an end run around the maternal wall by leaving the office park and launching my own business. I hoped that by founding a company, I could avoid the doubts about my commitment to work that arose from being a mother. I was not alone: Women start businesses at a rate five times faster than men do, launching 1,000 new companies a day. I credit this to resourcefulness. If the old men hanging on to the glory days of the old boys’ club refuse to open the door, women will just set up shop and work outside.

The auto-repair industry discriminates against women. So I quit my engineering job to become a mechanic.

Except it turns out that the maternal wall touches everything. Walk into a bank or talk to an investor, and you’ll see the bricks. Female business owners are offered smaller loans for shorter terms at higher rates than men. Only 2 percent of venture capital dollars went to women in 2016, when 5,839 male-founded companies received VC funding, compared with 359 female-founded companies. A prolific angel investor recently claimed that “a pregnant founder/C.E.O. is going to fail her company.”

That man is wrong. Many women, like me, launch companies while pregnant or with small children. Even though my first two daughters were counted against me in corporate America, I knew I wanted another child. I also wanted to start a business. So I did both at the same time. Now that the baby is here, I hope my work and the work of other mothers can set an example for the next wave of female entrepreneurs. I also hope those women do not hear the same things I did. One adviser suggested that I hide my pregnancy from potential investors because they would only “see me as a vessel.” An investor explained his commitment to female founders by telling me that he had just invested in an incredible entrepreneur who was “absolutely gorgeous, like a supermodel.” And another potential partner asked me at the end of an hour-long pitch if I was “physically prepared” to build a national company, given that I had three children.

While I nurse my baby on the airport floor, I think back to my last days of lawyering. I told my boss I was leaving to start a company. He told me he thought I’d have a latte and stay home. That was one year ago. Every day is different now. I never imagined I would be flying around the country with a newborn, hoping my milk wouldn’t leak during an investor pitch. Some men, like my old boss, may never get it. Some men will keep trying to build walls. Women, though? We will keep showing up. Doing the work. And we will take down those walls, brick by brick.

Read more:

Don’t worry, working moms: Just leave dad in charge at home

Trump’s budget would crush working moms like me