A mere 10 days after her husband died unexpectedly, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer for Facebook, announced that she was back to work. Her public return so soon after her husband’s death struck a chord with me as a single mother. I’m sure plenty of people in the tech industry think she’s a real trooper who believes the show must go on under any circumstance, but I think her actions highlight a real problem with Silicon Valley.
The reality is that Sheryl is now a single parent like me and nearly 14 million other women and men in the United States who have been put in this position due to a vast array of circumstances. Whether the cause of becoming a single parent is death of a spouse, divorce, or other reason, this status makes it darn near impossible to get hired at Facebook or maintain the work schedule required to sustain a position there. The same could be said of nearly every other tech company in Silicon Valley and beyond. While Sheryl’s job is protected, countless other single parents can’t get hired or will be let go because of scheduling issues due to the challenges of solo parenting.
It’s no secret that Silicon Valley loves to hire young men because they typically don’t have commitments like having to do the daily school pickup or having to make dinner every night. Companies aren’t known for working around single parents’ schedules. Not so surprising, men make up 69 percent of all Facebook employees, and 77 percent of its senior-level employees. This doesn’t look like a company that is overly welcoming to women, especially those who are also juggling being full-time parents.
No one can dispute Sheryl’s success within the tech industry and her personal desire to promote gender equality with her “Lean In” movement. Yet, there remains little equality for single parents who have to juggle 24-hour parenting and also work to make ends meet. Unlike Sheryl who is a billionaire, the vast majority of single parents scrape by and don’t have extra funds for childcare, housekeepers, and chefs so that they can devote the hours needed to grow their career. In other words, we can’t “lean in” when we’re not even at the table. We’re too busy juggling a frenetic schedule and too many bills to make an impact at the next big startup.
In a recent Huffington Post piece, media and tech entrepreneur Laura Wellington, who is also a young widow, explained that Sheryl had “joined an exclusive club that no one ever wants to be part of.” This is true. I can only imagine the devastation of being suddenly widowed.
However, the everyday challenges of becoming a single mother without support is no cake walk either. I know this firsthand. Not only do you lose your partner, you also lose a substantial amount of your family’s income and all of your time, too. And, there’s no one there to comfort you about it. In fact, I’m sure I could walk into Facebook with my 20 years of experience as a marketer and technical writer and would be quickly shown the door. I wouldn’t “fit” into the culture there because I have to send my kids off to school, pick them up, help them with their homework, and make dinner for them each and every day.
If the majority of Facebook’s employees are men, single mothers are probably the least likely to join the company’s payroll. I figured this out very quickly after applying for a couple of tech company jobs following the birth of my first son. I think I’m too much of a mother to also be a tech employee.
I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I was able to offer my skills as a freelancer. This year, I celebrate a decade of being self-employed, and interestingly, most of my clients are tech companies! They like my work, just not my schedule.
If I hadn’t become a single parent, I would probably be sitting in a corporate office putting in 60 hours a week and thinking about my stock options and retirement down the road. Instead, I work from a desk in my living room and make enough to pay the bills and to occasionally take the boys to dinner.
Hopefully, Sheryl will embrace joining the ranks of single parenthood and realize that she’s in the unique position of being able to call attention to the need to help this vast group of people who often don’t require anything more than a flexible schedule and a little encouragement. There are millions of talented single parents out there who want to lean in too. But, they just need to do it at the dinner table, instead of the conference room.
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