This was originally featured in the New York Times, click here to view Silicon Valley Is Growing Up, Giving Parents a Break.
NOVEMBER 25, 2015
Silicon Valley is beginning to admit it isn’t just for young people anymore.
The valley’s un-family-friendly culture has long been almost a point of pride, with employers openly preferring younger, childless employees who were presumed to be more productive. “Young people just have simpler lives,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, said in 2007, when he was 23. “Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”
In an informal poll last month by CB Insights, a private company data firm, 63 percent of the 4,040 respondents — mostly start-up founders who are also parents — said they struggled with balancing their start-up and parental duties daily or all the time. Only 10 percent said they never did.
Daniel Chao and Clara Shih with their son, Blake, in San Francisco. Both parents have started and run tech companies.
“I know people struggle with this — I certainly do as a parent and founder — but over 60 percent struggling with it every day or all the time even surprised me,” said Anand Sanwal, chief executive of CB Insights.
There are signs the culture could be changing.
On Friday, for example, Mr. Zuckerberg sounded a different note when he said he would take two months of paternity leave after his daughter is born. (Facebook offers employees four months of paid parental leave.) On Thursday, Spotify, with headquarters in London and Stockholm and offices worldwide, said it would give full-time employees six months of paid parental leave and one month of transition in which they can work flexible or shorter hours.
Long hours in the office and the expectations of being connected at home are familiar to workers across industries, not just Silicon Valley. Fifty-six percent of parents in dual-income households across the wage spectrum say they find the work-family balance to be difficult and stressful. But tech takes the high-stress, high-stakes American work culture to the extreme.
“The tech industry’s love for scrappy, accessible founders adds to the pressure,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, the online real estate company. “You’re expected to lead by example, to roll up your sleeves, to know everything going on.”
Tech has been a difficult place for parents in part because there have been so few parents or women among the 20-something start-up founders and coders who form large parts of the tech industry.
Many parents who work at small start-ups report that they were the first person at the company to have a child, and often there was no existing parental leave policy. Even at big companies like Facebook and Amazon, people with children or other outside commitments struggle with things like weekend hackathons or holiday conference calls.
“Being a tech founder is all-consuming; you can never really turn off,” said Clara Shih, founder and chief executive of Hearsay Social, who recently had her first child with her husband, Daniel Chao, also a tech founder and chief executive, of Halo Neuroscience. “You can’t skimp on your family, and you can’t skimp on your start-up, so you end up skimping on yourself.”
One reason this has recently become an issue could be that Silicon Valley is aging. There are, of course, many established companies with older employees, but many people who work at the hot companies of the web era are now also becoming parents. And start-ups stay private for longer periods now, meaning employees work at them longer before cashing out.
Tech companies also employ a disproportionately small number of women — one-third of employees at many companies, and often less than one-fifth of technical employees. Over all, parenthood affects women’s careers more substantially than men’s, and women tend to be the ones who ask for family-friendly policies at work like paid leave or flex time.
“Many women are written off as not as serious about work and their careers once they have children, so at times I feel like I have to work extra hard to change this perception on behalf of all women in tech,” Ms. Shih said.
Recruiting women is one reason that some tech companies have recently begun offering more generous parental leave. But the focus on formal policies like paid leave is not enough, Mr. Kelman said. Even more important is what happens after a worker returns from leave.
Employees are better off, he said, if they are encouraged to talk with their bosses about their family lives and create schedules that enable them to accomplish what they need to inside and outside work. Yet at some companies, they are fearful to do so because they worry they will appear uncommitted to work.
One symbol of the cultural change in tech, fair or not, is the criticism of executives who seem to prioritize work over family. That happened to Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, when she announced she would take only a very short leave after having twins.
“Five years ago, employees would be inspired by how hard you work,” Mr. Kelman said. “Now some complain that you’re setting the wrong example.”