‘The Crippled Workforce’


Kate Busby had a radical idea about motherhood: she believed it could peacefully coexist with her career. When Busby, the tech director of a New York-area web site, sat down with her boss, a father of three, he offered his own radical idea. Go ahead and have a kid, he said, then bring the baby with you to the office. After all, he figured, new media is a revolutionary field. Why let the old-school burden of juggling family and career bog valued workers down?

“Let employees establish a home environment,” the boss recalls telling her. “I think it would even increase productivity.”

Ecstatic, Busby (not her real name) and her partner fled the city for the suburbs. She got pregnant and looked forward to returning to work with the baby. Then everything changed. The company was sold, and the boss moved on. Two weeks before Busby was due to give birth, she was informed of a new policy, one that said bringing children to work was unacceptable.

“I said, ‘But this has been promised to me since I started here two years ago. We planned on having a kid around it,’ ” says Busby. This spring, a defiant Busby returned to work, installing her son with a nanny in a nearby office. So far management has said nothing. “It seems like we’re playing a big game of don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In an industry known for offering perks like on-site massage, free-booze bashes, and flexible (if long) hours, accommodating parents may be the last frontier. The same young executives willing to gamble millions on Internet start-ups are too often reluctant to bet on in-house day care. A twentysomething colleague of Busby’s says she couldn’t help noticing the company has been friendlier to pets than to children. “People used to bring their animals—ferrets, dogs—to work all the time,” she says, incredulous. “We can bring our dogs, but we can’t bring our children?”

At new-media companies, policies seem to be favoring the dog owners over the mothers. For moms who work in technology, even basics can be hard to come by, such as a well-conceived maternity plan and a boss who won’t huff with impatience over protests that a 12-hour workday doesn’t leave enough time for mothering.

The lack of attention to family needs may be more a matter of oversight than malice, say women in the field. “It surprises me that more revolutionary policies have not been put in place,” says Kathleen Harris, who heads the New York chapter of Women in Technology International. “It’s the last thing these companies really think about when they’re putting together a benefits package. . . . You’d think that Gen X’ers would be clued in to this. But it’s not a part of their reality. Until it becomes something that they have to deal with, it just doesn’t come up.”

And with companies demanding that workers be available around the clock, it’s no surprise that mothers aren’t necessarily welcome at Web companies. Harris, who works full-time as a headhunter for Internet firms, says some start-ups “are too slick” to ask for employees who don’t have families. “It’s couched in the disguise of ‘corporate culture,’ ” she says. They say the candidate “needs to fit into corporate culture.” And Harris knows what that means: young, single, and childless.

Of course, some women in new media have had good experiences. But most of them work for larger, and more corporate, firms. Lauren Gaviser, a 29-year-old executive at the fast-growing, is pregnant with her first child. People have been greatly supportive, she says, and she’ll get a generous maternity policy—eight weeks’ paid leave. She says she’d never consider bringing the child into work because she thinks it would distract her.

But when asked about details like long hours and breast feeding, Gaviser expresses some concern. First of all, the open-cubicle setup in the office doesn’t offer privacy for breast pumping. “Like I’m going to lug this pump with me into the bathroom? No way. I’d be mortified. So I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. And though she has tried hard not to let her pregnancy slow down her productivity, she’s often wished the office had a couch for napping. “I think the expectations haven’t changed, which is a good thing. But on the other hand, it means you have to work really hard when you may not want to.”

One mother who works as a content producer in Manhattan says she overheard her boss say she would never promote her because she left at five every day to be home for her son. Though bosses have often been understanding of her need to stay home with her child if he’s sick, they’ve had little patience for her coming in late because she’s been watching him in a school play. Even the idea of doing some work from home has been shunned. “The perception is, if you’re not in the office, you’re not working.”

She blames the antimom sentiment on the young men who often manage tech companies. “It’s kind of like having your life run by the worst crazy frat boy you went to college with,” she says, adding that such executives simply haven’t thought about dealing with sick children or needing a maternity leave. “Sooner or later you’re going to have this generation of people who are going to start having kids.”

Christine Grillo is of that generation. A 30-year-old site producer at the New York office of Raremedium, a Dallas-based Web-development firm, she’s now pregnant with her first child. Although coworkers and management have been supportive, Grillo says, the company didn’t even have a maternity policy in place until last year, when a coworker became the first to get pregnant.

“I really think that when she got pregnant, they were like, wow, this could happen again,” she says. “I don’t think it’s intentional discrimination—it just doesn’t occur to them.” Now new moms get 90 days of leave with 60 percent of their salary. “If new media wanted to be really innovative,” Grillo says, “they could do little things, like have rooms for using a breast pump.” Instead, she says, “mommies are looked at as sort of the crippled workforce,” and the less-than-helpful policies “beg the question: Does new media want mommies being there?”

Judging by the opinions of mothers in the field, a few perks could go a long way. “I feel way more valued by someone saying, ‘If you need to stay home, then stay home,’ ” says the Manhattan-based content producer, “rather than, ‘Here’s some more stock options.’ “

Archive Highlights