"It's simple biology."
I'm sure you've heard those words before, in one context or another. It's used to justify discrimination against every imaginable group: people of color, LGBT people, women, and on and on and on. It gets by on a dubious claim to scientific legitimacy; why, if it's biology, then it's an indisputable fact, and biologically speaking, X group is deficient in Y manner and that's why it's okay to discriminate against them en masse.
When it comes to the workplace, women, indisputably, are treated this way. It's simple biology, we hear over and over, that we're too emotional, less logical, more prone to getting upset, less proficient at data-driven fields, natural caregivers, and so on (never mind the actual data that invalidates these sexist stereotypes). But perhaps there is nothing thrown our way more invidious than discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
I'm sure I need not remind you that pregnancy is a key part of the perpetuation of the human race, and concomitantly every single business and institution in existence. So you'd think it would be something human society valued, and it does to a point, at least inasmuch as it can be used to promote an image of docility and dependence, which is, perhaps, the problem. You see, even the merest possibility of pregnancy is enough to deter employers from hiring women in greater numbers.
And why's that? Because pregnancy is a lot of work. It means an employee who can't be tied to her desk, is going to need medical leave sooner rather than later, and might need some reasonable accommodations (like time and space to pump). So pregnant women get penalized during the hiring process; with employers making every kind of assumption about her job performance and commitment. But it doesn't stop there; married women face a motherhood penalty, too, regardless of whether they're actually pregnant, because they might get pregnant in the future. It's bad enough that common advice for women seeking jobs is to take off their ring.
It all makes the recent news about Google's alleged workplace hostility toward pregnant women far from surprising. The author of the memo paints a picture of hostile management, unresponsive HR, pressure to refuse maternity leave, and threats that a promotion could be denied if she did take maternity leave. It's even less surprising in the male-dominated bro-y culture of Silicon Valley that both nurtured Google and which the company itself now fuels.
At best, it's a kind of patriarchal benevolence; at worst, it's naked expectation that employees work grueling hours and give their entire lives to the company's bottom line. That means even the barest accommodations won't be offered, forcing women to choose between their health and their income at a time when finances are often extremely strained. It all ultimately boils down to employers doing the calculus of what can be extracted from a worker rather than how a worker might benefit and strengthen a team; the human dimension goes entirely unconsidered, and where pregnancy factors in, that attitude strikes a remarkably punitive tone. We are punished for even potentially being fertile.
Nobody reading this is likely to believe that workplace discrimination against women is rare or non-existent; we've all, in one form or another, lived that reality. I still recall how, as a newly-minted employee of a large French bank, fresh out of business school, my colleagues would expect me to make coffee, answer phones, and generally do secretarial work. I was so incensed, I went and started my own business almost out of spite. And while I worked to grow that business from a dorm-room startup into a major industry player with global reach, I learned quite a lot. Not only about how this kind of discrimination functions, but how it persists.
It ultimately comes down, as I've gone into at length elsewhere, to workplace cultures structured around a particular kind of employee. The modern workplace birthed after World War II assumes a prosperous, middle class man with a wife and children at home. She handles the domestic work and caregiving, freeing him to work long hours, socialize in bars, and travel as needed. In short, it's a workplace where employees must be unencumbered – and women not only have encumbrances, but are seen as encumbrances: burdens the rest of the team must carry, especially when she's in what they used to call "a family way."
There's a headline that's been meme-ified and made its way around the internet: "I Don't Know How To Explain To You That You Should Be A Good Person." It's a searing look at the callousness, dismissiveness, contempt, and cruelty of so much of American society, the ways in which we abuse each other, not just for our personal gain, but to salve our own pride and secure our own position. There is no easy way to stop pregnancy discrimination that doesn't involve asking people to recognize that their employees are human beings and not fixed costs against which profits are calculated. We can look at data, we can implement policies, we can explore how pregnancy does affect productivity and find ways to mitigate it, but all of that ignores the root human problem of not caring about the wellbeing of others.
I have a great deal of faith in the rising generations, who seem – seem – to have their heads a bit more together on what sort of world we live in and how we should treat each other. Perhaps having been raised in an age of such stark inequality, watching their parents, elder siblings, and friends struggle with realities that our economy simply can't cope with in a constructive way has taught them that fairness and equity go hand in hand, and the free market isn't really free if people are systematically restricted from participating in it. It's something I see every day in my own children and their peers: hope for the future.
And I hope I'm right to see it.
When their frustration with current fabric care options had fashionistas Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd worn out, the two entrepreneurs made it their mission to start a new niche and launch their very own at-home, eco-friendly laundry detergent line.
With a mission of turning an everyday domestic chore into a luxurious experience, these entrepreneurs not only conjured up an idea for an unconventional product line, but they successfully built their business while turning down the offer of every venture capitalist to knock on their door.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd co-founded The Laundress in 2004 after dealing with their own personal frustrations with limited clothing care options. Whiting, having worked at Ralph Lauren in design and Boyd having worked at Chanel in corporate sales, soon accumulated a stylish wardrobe of designer pieces as perks of their jobs in the fashion industry. However, the duo quickly realized that the maintenance required for upkeeping these items were far from adequate. Laundry products on the market at the time did not cater to delicate textures and fabrics such as tweed blazers, cable-knit cashmere and silk blouses. Taking their clothing to the dry cleaners also proved hopeless as their clothing would often come back with stains or even be ruined despite the overload of chemicals used to clean them. With nowhere left to turn, Whiting and Boyd were determined to create their own laundry solutions designed for specific fabrics.
Not only did the entrepreneurs develop the business expertise needed to finally begin their own company, but they also shared the same educational background that equipped them to pursue their unconventional business venture. Whiting and Boyd met in college as students at Cornell University majoring in Fiber Science, Textile, and Apparel Management and Design. The pair was introduced by a mutual friend and instantly knew they would become business partners. "It was inevitable that we were going to have a business together. We are both extremely entrepreneurial by nature, and it was one of the connections that we instantly shared" said Whiting. After focusing on pursuing their own individual careers for a while, Whiting and Boyd quickly discovered a void in the fabric care marketplace when their clients would continuously inquire about the upkeep of their designer pieces.
The entrepreneurial duo was committed to researching and developing their own eco-friendly laundry products and soon launched their own at-home solutions for specific fabrics like silk, wool and denim, which ultimately eliminated the need for dry cleaning for those particular items. Despite their products filling a necessary void in the market, it quickly became challenging for the founders to persuade people to shift their focus away from traditional laundry care options in order to try their products. However, Whiting and Boyd believed in their mission for the Laundress and bootstrapped from the very beginning, refusing all venture capital funding with the goal of growing organically. In order to be successful, they had to get creative in fundraising. "In the very early days, we funded business development by hosting a 'for profit' party at a New York City restaurant and inviting friends, family, co-workers, etc. to support our new venture. That was pre-Kickstarter and an inventive way to make everyone feel a big part of our decision to be entrepreneurs," said Whiting.
While turning down VC funding as new entrepreneurs seems unimaginable, it is as equally unfathomable to consider how these women gained national traction without social media, all the while hustling to fund their business. For Whiting and Boyd, who started their business before social media existed, it was imperative that they promote their brand by leveraging the resources they had available to them. The CEO's were one of the first to sell consumer goods, let alone detergent, online with the goal of reaching a national audience. Despite having limited retail distribution, they leveraged the power of their website and became featured in publications on both a national and international scale. "Before social media platforms existed, we nurtured our own Laundress community with engaging content on our website, step-by-step tutorials on our blog, and one-on-one communication through our Ask The Laundress email," Whiting explained. With technology evolving and the birth of social media platforms, the founders expanded the conversation about their products from website, blog and email to platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
As female entrepreneurs, Whiting and Boyd faced additional hardships as misconceptions about their mission ultimately proved to disappoint more than it encouraged them. As women selling luxury detergent, there existed a preconceived notion that funding would be more easily attainable based upon their gender.
"Everyone thought it was easy to access capital as female entrepreneurs, but it was actually very challenging. We had this unique and disruptive idea within a very traditional space and it was hard to get people on board at first. It's been a continuous journey to educate people in fabric care and home cleaning," said Boyd.
Reflecting on their journey as entrepreneurs, the founders express no regrets about refusing to accept venture capital throughout the process. "Over the years, we could never quantify the cost benefit of VC funding so we continued to grow organically and remain independent by funding ourselves with credit cards and loans," explained Boyd. While their decision proved fruitful, the duo expressed their consideration towards other entrepreneurs who may not be able to fully fund their business as they grow. Because funding is a situational experience, entrepreneurs must ultimately do what is best for their business as no one path is optimal for every entrepreneur or every business.
With an increasing amount of women entering entrepreneurship with their own unique set of products or services, the CEO's offer up one piece of advice on how female entrepreneurs can be successful in their endeavors.
Whiting: "Our advice to anyone looking to build their brands: Have a strong business plan and vision. If you are not disciplined to write a business plan first then you are not disciplined to start a business. Get your ideas down so you ask yourself the right questions; it helps you get organized and plan next steps."
Boyd: "Create quality products without sacrificing the ingredients—no cutting corners. What you create should be the most important piece. Stay passionate, and trust your instincts and follow your gut—something woman are awesome at!"