Welcome back to WorkMinus, where we talk about what we need to drop from how we work today, and quick pivots you can make to get closer to a better future of work. Today our guest is Nora Jenkins Townson, founder at Bright & Early, and this episode is WorkMinus ‘Parental Bias.’
Hi Nora, how are you today?
I’m great, how are you doing Neil?
I’m doing excellent, and very excited about this topic, and I want you to start by telling us a little bit about yourself and what your company is.
Sure, so I’m Nora. I’ve been working in the tech and creative HR space for about ten years. And when I stay creative I mean I’ve never worked in a bank or a corporate setting. I’ve only worked in design or tech or startup focused areas. And about a year ago I founded Bright and Early. So, Bright and Early is a consulting firm, and we’re focused essentially on the same topic of this podcast, which is building the future of work. So we mostly work with tech startups who don’t have any HR yet, but they share a view that putting people first is actually the best and fastest way to business success. So we build things like, really good on-boarding programs, policies that don’t suck, inclusive recruiting strategies, and things of that nature. So we take a lot of inspiration from service and product design, and build everything custom for each company.
Wow. It’s an exciting time to be in this industry, to be able to help to build things. Because not only is the tech industry growing and and new, but also HR policies, the idea of how to best connect with people is also growing too, so that’s a new thing. Which leads us to the topic of our discussion, which is parental bias, which is a very interesting topic to come about. You just released something called the ‘Parenting Playbook,’ which is geared toward founders and executives in tech companies, like you talked about. We’re talking about a work force between 22 to 36. And you know, there was a time when you could almost expect that some these people be parents, but a lot of demographics have changed since then. Can you talk about how those things have changed, and are parents in tech companies a minority now?
Yeah, absolutely. So just quickly – the ‘Parenting Playbook’ – it’s a collaboration between Bright and Early and two amazing women in the tech industry, Anna Mackenzie and Amanda Monday. It’s a project that helps founders or early stage companies understand the needs of parents and design unique perks, some of them low-to-no-cost at all, to accommodate them, and that demographic. So to answer your question, it’s true that the typical age range at a startup is still folks in their 20s and 30s. Of course there’s always outliers. And it is also true that millennials, like myself – I’m 32 – a kind of ‘mid-range millennial,’ we’ve delayed having kids. It’s arguable whether that’s for social or economic reasons, but now millennials are actually in their late 20s up to the mid-to-late 30s. So even though we’re waiting longer, it’s still the prime baby years. So while I’m finding that parents are still a minority at most startups in tech companies, it’s really quickly beginning to change. In tech, the biggest issue right now is the fight for talent. Recruiting is huge. If it’s not the top priority, it’s absolutely one of them. Because they can’t achieve what they want to if they don’t have the people, and there’s so much competition over these people. So when the trend starts to shift in the direction of these employees that they’re targeting aging into this demographic, focusing on attracting and retaining parents is not just a warm and fuzzy nice thing to do, there’s a massive business case. And if you can get ahead of the curve by winning this market, you’re going to win the talent war, and you’re going to get the best work and the best products out there the fastest.
So have tech companies, by and large, just kind of avoided parents up to this point, or what’s been your take?
Yes. I would say definitely so. The first iteration of the Playbook was called the ‘Expecting Playbook.’ I didn’t work on that one. But it was focused on how startups can build parental leave policies, because a lot of them had none. They never considered it. A lot of these founders, the stereotypical founder of a startup is a male in his 20s or early 30s, who normally does not have a family yet. Of course there’s always other exceptions, but that’s kind of what you think of – the early days Zuckerberg, who actually now is a parent. It’s just something that doesn’t cross their mind. So the reason that we wrote the these playbooks is to give them that information. To say: Oh wow, it actually takes months of waiting lists and a ton of money to get a kid into child care, I just never considered it.
So what are some of the ways that parents face bias in the workplace, aside from once they get in what are some ways that they face that bias?
So we don’t see a lot of flat-out ‘parent hate’ – it’s more an unconscious bias thing. Things you don’t realize are a big deal until you are parent, or are around parents. Again, some of the things they don’t realize are: the high cost of childcare, the low availability of childcare in a lot of major cities, and how difficult it can be to integrate yourself back into work after taking time off. So when doing research for the project, we talked to people who are being mentored by the CEO, and on a track, and promised a promotion. And they came back, and their department had been reorganized, and they had to kind of squeeze them into a new role, they had a new boss who didn’t know them at all, and it set them back in their career. There’s also a lot of well-meaning bias. That’s where people are trying to be helpful, but they end up disempowering parents. So employers or managers, they might assume that parents don’t want to be given tough projects, or be sent on traveling assignments, when really you should be consulting people and not taking those opportunities away. Let them decide, or help accommodate them traveling, or working flexibly on these projects.
Which kind of relates to another question I have about: is it okay, is it fair to ask non-parents to work late but not ask for parents? Or to ask parents to travel? What are some of the lines and the blurry edges that surround those issues?
I actually think everyone should be given an equal amount of work. It’s about giving them the flexibility to do that well. So let’s break it down a little bit. Do I think parents should be doing less work than their childless counterparts, just because they’re parents? Absolutely not. Do I think parents should be accommodated flexibly to get that done? Yes. So if I’m a parent, and I need to come in at 7 AM instead of 9, and leave at 4 to pick up my kids – that should be fine, as long as I’m getting my stuff done. I also see a lot of parents who leave early and log back in after their baby’s bedtime. On the other hand, I also have a strong personal bias against the whole startup mentality of working till you’re burnt out. So if no one can get their work done at a company without working super late every day, your company either needs to prioritize better or hire more people. I think that there should be the same expectations from everyone, but if you say, everyone must be in from these exact hours and you can’t support any flexibility, then it’s going to be tougher for parents to get things done, but don’t expect less of them. In fact, I would sometimes expect a lot more. A lot of parents have told me that they become ruthless prioritizers after becoming parents, so it can actually be very sharpening for a lot of people.
Now, we’re using this term ‘parent,’ which obviously means someone is taking care of a child. But it has a lot of different meanings behind it too, and different people behind it. So you have parents both men and women, you have multiple types of families that are out there, you have parents of very young children, you have parents of older children – what are some of the ways you’ve seen that kind of diversity in parenting play out?
Yeah, absolutely. So it’s definitely something that we want founders, and anyone using this handbook, to be conscious of as well. We actually do have a section about that as well, and it’s just about ‘not assuming.’ In not assuming that because someone is a dad they’re not a primary caregiver – so we spoke to a dad whose partner is often traveling and away from the house for three or four days a week, so he does all the daycare drop-off and pick-ups and things like that. It can be really limiting to assume that in a partnership of a man and a woman, that if you’re employing the man, that he has someone at home to always take care of things. If you ask him to to work late, it’s very dated. We also have to think about LGBTQ parents as well. We made sure that we talked to a number of those, to get their perspectives as well. Things like not assuming who was the childbearing parent, and not asking about that, just asking them what accommodations they need to get their work done as a parent. It doesn’t matter what their gender is, or what their background is, you should just have those conversations and work with everyone individually and not assume.
One part of the Playbook I really liked was when you talked about explaining the policies, and you made a point that you don’t ask somebody ‘Do you wear glasses?’ before you tell about the vision policy. You just say, this part of it. And you can do the same thing with the parent policy, right?
Exactly. One of the key points that we try to make is, make sure everything is written down and accessible. Often when people are interviewing with your company, they don’t feel comfortable enough to say – because of the power dynamics of interviews – that they need a ton of flexibility, or that they plan on having a child soon, or anything like that. So I think it can be a huge advantage and be great branding for your company. If you have flexibilities or parent-related benefits, or parental leave top-ups the you can put those right on your career site, and you can make a PDF sheet that you sent to all people that you are recruiting or that you’re interviewing, to tell them all about your different benefits. Include the eyeglasses, include the parental leave, and make it really accessible for internal employees as well. Don’t make them come to their managers or HR to ask. Write down everything and make it available to them really easily.
So when we talk about parents and careers, I feel like a lot of times the issue is around priorities. You might have somebody who is young, 24 or 25, and you could expect that person to have career mindedness, they have a path they’re willing to walk down. But if somebody shows up who is in their mid-30s and they offer the fact they have kids and suddenly maybe their job is more about a means to an end. They’re trying to pay bills and get through. Is that a fair assumption to make, or how can we overcome that kind of bias?
I don’t think it’s a fair assumption to make. For many parents, their career becomes even more important after becoming parents. They have the drive to succeed for the sake of their family. But also, for many adults with kids, work is their connection to the adult world and it becomes a kind of sanctuary. I myself, I’m really passionate about my career and not just for work’s sake. I think my work helps me make my mark on the world, it leads me to a lot of personal growth, and it can be a wonderful example for a child as well. I’ve heard from so many working parents that they become master prioritizers, like I mentioned, after becoming parents. Having to get such a huge amount done in one day at work and at home, it forces you to focus only on those big impact projects, as well. I also think that some gender bias can sneak its way into that type of question as well. I think there’s a difference in in the past, and I think that’s changing now, thankfully, about the way that people view the professional ambition of a man with kids and a woman with kids. There would be an assumption in the past that a man with kids – often in the 50s and 60s, the Mad Men days, they would get paid a higher salary because it was assumed that they were the main breadwinner. Most families in North America now are dual income, and we’re not living in the 50s anymore. So judge people as individuals, judge them by their output, make sure you can understand and evaluate that output, and you have a way to do that, so you don’t have to rely on bias. You know what needs to get done and you have a strict measure of how well everybody’s doing against that. It doesn’t matter if they’re parents.
Earlier you said that it’s rare to find ‘parent-haters’ out there, but have you ever encountered any kind of resentments from non-parents in the workforce about the need to accommodate for these types of things?
Yeah. I am not necessarily the best person to ask about this, because I am a very soon to be future parent, and not a parent now. I am due at the end of the fall. Very exciting.
Thank you. So, I believe in companies supporting and accommodating employees through anything they go through in their life. Parenting just happens to be a pretty common one, and a pretty tough one to go through. So a company who chooses to be flexible for a new parent, they also might be flexible for someone caring for a sick relative, or something like that. I worked somewhere a few years ago that had a really great approach to this. They had both a bonus and programs for new parents to spend on baby expenses, and they had a partnership with a local daycare that guaranteed them a spot, which can be a big, hard deal. But they also had things like, they had a compassion fund for employee emergencies. So other employees could nominate a peer that was going through a hard financial time, like a really expensive vet bill was one example I saw, to receive help from the funds. So it actually didn’t cost much in the long term of things, but it really gave you that heartwarming feeling like were a part of a community. It was great to talk about externally, in terms of describing the culture and recruiting, and it was just really great to build a sense of, like I said, community. And in turn, that leads to great retention. So, parents or non-parents, just take care of your employees. No one is saying that parents will, or should, do less work.
As we look at generational divides are coming through, we talked about millennials now being extended to people in their mid-30s, even potentially their late 30s. Millennials have always been, for the last several years, the the edge of the workforce. So how does that compare with new people coming that are fresh in their early 20s, just coming out of college, or even out of high school – is there much of a generational divide you’re seeing between these groups?
So ‘Gen Z,’ the next generation that are in university now, starting to enter the workforce on the heels of millennials and they’re actually known as the most idealistic generation out there. They’re getting involved in politics and protests, they’re very socially aware. Statistically, they’re more socially aware than any other generation before them, and that’s really important to them. So millennials are now in an age range where they’re moving into management, if they’re not there already. So building compassionate workplaces and flexible workplaces is something that’s going to become even more important as we manage Gen Z employees as millenials.
Excellent. Nora, it’s been really interesting to think about how a company can adapt to a new parental policy. A lot of times people think about that though, and they think it’s just money, it’s just money to have to pay for childcare, for my employees, I have to do other things to make sure that they’re accommodated. So what are some easy, simple ways that are very effective, yet don’t cost a lot of money for companies to do to accommodate for parents?
I love that question, because most of the things that we suggest in the ‘Parenting Playbook’ actually cost nothing but consideration. They’re low cost. They’re very, very low cost or they’re just about thoughtfulness. So they can include making sure you have a pumping room set up for chest-feeding parents, or you can have a template for managers and employees to collaborate on together for how they want their parental leaves planned, and how they want their returns to work to be handled. So again, it’s just about asking people and empowering them to plan that. You can do things like have them return part-time for part-time pay. Or allow them to work from home as they ease back in.
There’s even alternative solutions like that out there. One of the book’s co-authors, Amanda Monday, she has recently launched a space called ‘The Workaround,’ which is a coworking space with childcare built-in as a service. Some companies are opting to partner with businesses like that, to give somebody a professional working environment to return part-time. And to get out of the house and into that environment, while easing back in. Again on the consideration front, things like providing advance notice for travel, and for anything that happens after hours, like celebratory events or parties or Friday night drinks. You can consider having things like ‘core hours’ – say 10 AM through 4 PM. And don’t book big decision-making meetings outside of that. So if big decisions at your company are are happening at 8 PM, drinks, or late meetings, that that’s going to be really hard for parents, or anyone else that has caregiving responsibilities of any kind. So just being conscious and considerate when you’re planning meetings. Small kindnesses are low cost. Like sending a meal delivery or house cleaning service to brand new parents that just had a baby. That can go a really long way – it’s something they’ll never forget.
And if you can invest money at all, consider putting it towards an extended parental leave, or helping with the cost of childcare. Again, I know it can seem warm and fuzzy, or pie in the sky, but it is actually strategic. How much has your company spent on recruiting events and booths? Or parties that you think build culture and retention? So those are the two areas where investments and parents will have a huge ROI. Maybe you do have a budget for these important projects.
Well obviously you’ve done a lot of research a put lot of thought into this. Why don’t you tell people where they can access the ‘Parenting Playbook,’ and where they can stay in touch with you, too?
‘C-A’ for Canada. Thank you so much Nora, it’s been great to talk with you and we’ve really been encouraged by what you’ve said.
Thanks for having me!