What are the best jobs for new moms? Look for flexibility.

When the boss is on your back…

This Women's Work

Women are dropping out of the workforce – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 73% of women between the ages of 25 and 54 are employed full time (that number is 88% for men in the same age group).

But it’s not because women can’t find jobs – it’s because the traditional workplace isn’t working for them.

We talked to Annie Dean, the cofounder of Werk, a job search platform for women who are seeking flexible full-time employment, about the unique challenges facing new mothers in the workforce, how companies need to respond, and why flexibility could be the answer.

Uncubed: How did you and cofounder Anna Auerbach come to realize that flexibility was the key to keeping women – especially new mothers – in the workforce?

Dean: I was a corporate attorney and Anna was working as a consultant at McKinsey – we both had these Holy Grail associates positions. And you enter the job and you look around and it’s 50/50 men and women, but when you look upwards you see that it’s less than 5% women.

At first I thought that’s irrelevant – that’s the way of the past, and there’s no way that I’ll be affected by that, because we’re living in a post-feminist world.

But I had a rude awakening after my first son was born.

I was given the best opportunities in my associate class when I got there, but after my child was born I just felt there was a really significant and arbitrary decline in my trajectory.
Anna came at it from a different direction – she was living in Las Vegas at the time and she was struck by how many women were there because of job opportunities that their husbands had. And they weren’t able to find jobs there.

We looked at what the market was saying about that attrition rate and all the onus was being put on women. You know, women are not speaking loudly enough they’re not good negotiators, women need to do more, and if they would just do more then they would get there. But I knew firsthand that wasn’t right. I’m a good negotiator and I have a voice.

I knew that if I was being forced to fail in that situation, many, many other women were as well.

And that’s when you struck upon flexibility?
Both of us intrinsically knew that what would have solved our problems, and the problems of our peers, was something around flexibility. So we started looking at the data about what flexibility meant.

30% of the most talented women in the workforce were leaving, and 70% of those women would still be working if they had opportunities for real flexibility.

Separately, companies are offering it – they know that flexibility is important. But the uptake is extremely low, just 1 to 2% and there are a lot of reasons for that.

One is because when women ask for flexibility they’re put at a disadvantage – companies treat it like a personal favor or a lifestyle perk, when the reality is that it’s the lowest-cost and highest-impact strategic tool that companies can use to solve that attrition and keep talented women in the workforce, and to prevent them from opting out.

It’s a huge economic problem and it deeply affects a business’ bottom line – talking to businesses, we focus on the financial advantage of flexibility. Because if you are actually successful in retaining and advancing women, and you are able to get women into leadership teams – at the departmental and the board level – the company improves by every metric.

Gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers. Female-founded startups outperform their peers by 63%.

So how do you get someone to perform at their highest level and make that sustainable over time? The way you do that is by building a mission that is compatible with a person’s life.

Is there a cultural shift that needs to happen as well? I’d imagine if your former employer offered flexibility it wouldn’t have been enough.

Personally I know it wasn’t enough. But it’s not a huge cultural shift – what needs to happen is standardization.

Everyone has a different conception of what flexibility means, and because of that lack of understanding and lack of standardization, it tends to be more ad hoc and ends up in this personal favor category.

So what we did was standardize flexibility. We created something called the Flexiverse, which is a framework of six flexibility products that truly represent the needs of a modern workforce.

If you think of the two tent poles out there: there’s the traditional full-time job that really has not changed since the post-World War 2, single-parent household era. And then there’s the gig economy, and the gig economy is really a failing proposition for parents, because you have high fixed costs of child care and fluctuating revenue.

We occupy the space between these two tent poles. The workplace needs to be updated so that employees – today we focus on working mothers, but in reality this affects the world more broadly – aren’t being forced to fail. So they need a new way for the way work looks.

But in order to make that scalable, and to make that adoptable on a broad basis, companies need to understand what flexibility means. That’s what we offer.

Is that compatible with today’s always-on workforce, where employees are often expected to be responsive 24/7?

We talk a lot about when flexibility attacks. And on the other hand, flexibility is not an unstructured opportunity to be taken advantage of at any moment.

But what it takes to implement, especially in an early-adoption phase, is self-awareness and discipline. In order to say, “I’m going to take on a structure of work that’s new to me and new to the market,” you have to have a sense of how you’re going to enforce it. And you have to have a deep sense of what works for you. When you understand that and you have the opportunity to execute against what works for you I think it’s very easy to prevent the attack of flexibility.

Your own background as an attorney involved billable hours, where you’re constantly self-monitoring. Has that influenced how you perceive flexibility? Can that work for everybody?

That’s why we offer six flexibility products, because not everything is going to work for everybody. But as a macroeconomic value set and a company value set, I believe more in results-based work and a results-based environment. You have to have a level of trust.

We talk about the tyranny of the quantifiable – in our economy we often overvalue hours spent, despite a lot of evidence about the intangible value of less measurable items.

The struggle of our time is how to place resources in places that are less measurable, and to build environments where those items have priority.

What advice would you offer a person who is interested in pursuing flexibility at work?

It’s an exploration of self-awareness – I always recommend that people make lists. When I was jumping ship from corporate law, I spent some of my time on maternity leave really reflecting on what I was good at.

So I developed two lists. One list of my professional skills and what those abilities translated to in terms of more general skill sets.

And then I created a list of what I care about in the world – what are the ideas that I keep coming back to and thinking about?

Maybe that’s where I want to invest my time.

And then I thought about what I wanted my day to look like – do I picture myself having a family dinner each night at six o’clock? Is that realistic?

And then finally, what do I not want? in the context of where I was coming from, I did not want to sit at a desk with no natural sunlight for 16 hours a day. I didn’t want to be in a huge corporate park where I had to walk for ten minutes just to get to my office and take an elevator ride to the 100th floor.

I was able to have a much better sense of what I wanted by taking a deep look at who I really was, instead of what I would have said before doing that exercise.

You can learn more about Werk right here.

Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


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