Female Founder Equality Won’t Truly Exist Without Accessible Childcare

Since entering the startup scene in Seattle about 16 months ago, I have been inundated with the rhetoric surrounding the massive disparity between the funding that female founders get versus male.  But funding, especially since many angel investors outright say they don’t want you to use their money to pay yourself a salary, is not the biggest threat to me being a successful founder – it’s lack of childcare.

Now really, lack of childcare is just the tip of the ice berg.  What is behind the lack of childcare is sometimes a lack of support, belief, and resources and to illustrate this, I’ll provide a recent real-life example.

Last week, I travelled to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend a female founders startup reception hosted by Stripe Atlas, a company I hold dear and feel very supported by.  The event, like every single founders event I have ever been to, did not have childcare.  Nevertheless, I left my five children at home with my husband in Seattle and I managed to convince my twin sister, also a mother of young children, to come to the event from San Jose.  She’s a founder too.  She agreed.

But throughout the entire day leading up to the event, my sister faced a massive burden trying to figure out what she could do with her two toddlers to enable her to attend this event.  You HAVE to attend, I said.  This is how business works.  You have to meet people, get introductions, make connections, help others, build up your repertoire.  And so I spent the entire day, before, during, and after my flight simultaneously pressuring her to not give up trying to find childcare while also trying to be understanding because I’ve been in her shoes a thousand times.

Now my sister does have a fiancé in her life – and he is the father of the toddlers in question.  But my sister has faced what many other female founders face – the burden of trying to convince the man in her life – the man who has the “real” job and earns the “real” money, that the startup she is working on, is valuable enough for him to take time out of his day to watch the kids so that she can go to a work function of her own.

And though I have an incredibly supportive husband of my own who has no problem changing poopy diapers and spending time “watching” our kids, I too have struggled with trying to prove to him – and especially my in-laws – that what I am working on is actual work.  It is not some pie in the sky dream, it is not me trying to peddle stuff door to door, it is a REAL company, with REAL potential, that could provide an exponentially larger amount of economic resources for our family than a traditional job could, given the proper support and resources.

And so my sister did end up going to the event.  She drove for over an hour trying to find our father who is homeless and living on the railroad tracks in San Jose and convinced him to come to their home and watch her two kids so that she could go to this necessary female founders event.  She pulled it off.  Whew.  And as my father, bless his heart, struggled with his emphysema-ridden lungs to chase after two rambunctious kids, it occurred to me that there will never ever be true female founder equality until the very reasons women are kept out of participating in the startup ecosystem are addressed.

I recently watched a video of Nick Hughes and Rand Fishkin where they discuss addressing the diversity problem in startups and companies as a whole.  And Rand was smart in saying that perhaps we need to ask the question of how to address the problem to the actual people who are being affected by it.  So I suppose this is my little tidbit.  And I know my message is not for everyone, I also know that not all women choose to or can have children, some women’s children are grown, and some women have all of the childcare resources and support that they need to succeed in their journey of founding a company.  But I also do know that many women are being held back in this exact way that I just described.  And I’d like to start the conversation of how to address it.

Just to give a little perspective, I recently went to a childcare center that is right down the street from my house and less than a mile away from my co-working space.  It’s an awesome center – they have academics, healthy meals and snacks, even webcams so I could peek in on my babies and see what they are up to throughout the day.  But the cost of enrolling my twin toddlers in this particular daycare center is about $4,000 a month.  Wow!  $4,000 a month!!!  How am I going to convince my husband, or my in-laws, that what I am building as a founder is worthy of that price tag.  That I am a good enough risk to take.  That I deserve some child-free time during the day to work on my dream, my passion, and more importantly, a REAL company?!?  I haven’t been too successful so far and neither has my twin sister.

And so, once our wonderful German au pair leaves us next month, I am effectively out of the game.  I will not have childcare and neither will my sister.  And that is now two women – two capable, intelligent, hard-working women who don’t have a real shot at being successful founders.  And that’s a shame.  And it happens all across the world.

This issue does not just affect females who choose to be founders.  Even when it comes to a traditional job – if women earn less money than men (which they still do), they will face hurdles to childcare.  It leads to women needing to find the more “flexible” jobs (which tend to pay less money) so that they can be the ones to call in to work when the children are sick or go to parent-teacher meetings and doctor appointments.  After all, you wouldn’t want to interrupt the schedule of the person who earns the higher income because it could mean a bigger financial hit if it affects their performance.  Sure, all of this makes sense on the surface, but these very issues are what will continue to allow the inequality of women and men in our society to perpetuate.

Now that I have gotten all of that off my chest, I can honestly say that I don’t know what the instant answer to female-founder-inequality is because I know there are many problems and that we need many answers.  But I think a good place to start would be to offer free childcare at the startup events around town.  This way, women (or even anyone with young children) can more freely take part.  They won’t have to choose between making valuable connections at events and working on their actual companies by being forced to split up what limited childcare they may have access to.  And it would be great to see more co-working spaces with childcare connections as well.

My hope is that this writing does not cause anyone to feel that I am saying they aren’t already doing enough for female founders.  In many areas, I feel supported beyond measure.  But until we live in a society where women are no longer looked at as the sole primary caregivers, until we live in a society where men – AND society – take part in collectively raising the world’s children, we can’t have true female founder equality and justice – we will always have a lopsided system.

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