Mar 20, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Girls Who Code founder says coding isn't enough

Photo illustration of Reshma Saujani next to the book "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work."

Photo Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photos: Simon & Schuster

Reshma Saujani told a generation of girls that if they gained coding skills, they would be halfway to a productive, fulfilling career. In her new book, "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work," the Girls Who Code founder admits the cards are still stacked against those girls — and only systemic change can provide true equity.

Why it matters: Saujani's new tome offers a powerful counterweight to the notion that the biggest thing standing in the way of women's success is a skills gap and that women don't have to make sacrifices to advance in their careers.

  • "Having it all is a euphemism for doing it all," Saujani said in an interview. "We should throw it in the garbage."

The big picture: That's a big shift for Saujani who, as head of Girls Who Code, became the standard-bearer for the idea that the main issue facing women in tech was a skills gap.

  • Saujani has had a wide-ranging career, working in both finance and city government before starting Girls Who Code in 2012. She ran unsuccessfully for a New York congressional seat in 2013, finishing third in the Democratic primary.
  • Critics of Girls Who Code's skills-based approach have long argued that systemic inequalities, shaped by ingrained racism and sexism, were the dominant forces keeping women from achieving their full potential.

"I was wrong," Saujani now freely admits. "I’m embarrassed by that."

The big picture: Saujani's shift has been in process for a while now. In January 2021 she began advocating for a Marshall Plan for Moms, calling on businesses and government officials to dismantle the structural barriers that keep women from being able to juggle successful home and work lives.

"We’re never getting to equality in the workplace if we don’t get to equality at home," she said.

  • Getting paid child care is a crucial first step, Saujani said, pointing with frustration to the inability of Congress to provide money for child care and paid leave. "I am really angry," she said. "We bailed out airlines and we couldn’t bail out child care."
  • Tech companies have been at the forefront of offering paid leave, both before and during the pandemic. However, many still have different rules for men and women, either in policy or in practices.
  • Like many others, Saujani notes that the pandemic significantly set back women's place in the workforce by forcing them to bear the brunt of the additional demands created by COVID-19 school shutdowns.
  • "We still can’t get men to do right by us," She said. "They just expect that we will keep doing it."

Yes, but: Saujani notes that the so-called Great Resignation has led to a significant talent shortage that could provide an opening for women to demand greater equity at work and at home.

  • "We have power right now," she said. The most needed change, she said, is subsidized child care. "Right now they'll freeze your eggs," Saujani said, but they won't pay for child care. "That no longer is tenable."
  • The rise of remote work is a mixed bag, she cautions. While added flexibility is good, Saujani worries about a future in which more of the guys are back in the office at the water cooler while many women remain at home trying to work, do laundry and take care of the kids.

Between the lines: It's worth noting that my conversation took place over Zoom, with Saujani on her laptop in her son's bedroom where she was talking to me about her book while trying to keep her son entertained with Legos, given he was on spring break.

  • Her husband, venture capitalist Nihal Mehta, had commandeered the home's better video chat setup, where he was meeting with his fellow partners.
  • And, really, that's kind of Saujani's point.

Go deeper: I'll be interviewing Saujani live next week at an online gathering of the Commonwealth Club. You can get more info and tickets here.

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