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Anna Steffeney
Anna Steffeney speaks at Women Who Code. (GeekWire photo.)

When Anna Steffeney‘s Microsoft co-workers in Redmond, Wash., heard about her pregnancy, some told her to “keep it in as long as possible.” She left Microsoft not long after and did not return.

Tech companies, especially in the U.S., have a problem with motherhood — many don’t accommodate for it, so women who want to have kids leave, worsening an already embarrassing gender gap in technology, she said.

Steffeny, the founder and CEO of LeaveLogic, a company that helps employees and businesses manage parental leave, and Alice Steinglass, the VP of product and marketing at Code.org, spoke about motherhood and technology the Connect 2016 Conference in Seattle, hosted by Women Who Code.

Alice Steinglass of Code.org
Alice Steinglass (GeekWire Photo.)

According to Steffeney, the vast majority of women will become mothers. However, in the U.S., only 12 percent of women have access to paid maternity leave.

“That means that when you have a new baby and you’re recovering and healing, you have to make some really hard choices about paying your bills, going into debt, getting subsidies,” she said. “This is not the way we should be welcoming new families and celebrating women.”

When she was with Microsoft in Germany, where she had her first child, the situation was very different, Steffeney said. The company has improved its U.S. policies regarding mothers in the years since she left, she said, but at the time, its culture was so unfriendly to parents that she left to take care of her second child full-time and decided to found her own company to help American businesses institute parental leave policies.

“I think it’s a myth that there’s all this free time when you have kids,” Steinglass said of her experience as a mother in tech. “People are all like, ‘Your kid is going to sleep and then you can actually be productive,’ but it’s impossible to turn it on and off like that…There is no world in which we can do it all.”

From business standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to lose women who are mothers, either, Steffeney added. It costs companies globally $49 billion per year to rehire and retrain people to replace mothers who did not return after maternity leave, she said.

The need for paid parental leave will only become more important in the coming years, Steffeney said, since many households with children will have women as their predominant income earners in 2017.

“We have this very interesting economic dynamic that’s forcing these policies to be broader and not gender-specific because when you make a ‘maternity leave’ policy, you’re putting financial pressure on a family if the women is now the predominant income earner,” she said.

However, even if a company offers paid parental leave, without other infrastructure like childcare or lactation support, women will still quit their jobs, Steffeney said. If they have to pump breast milk in a server room, for instance — something both Steffeney and Steinglass did during their careers — women will get the message that mothers are not wanted in tech, even if that’s not the case.

While not every company is changing its practices to accommodate parenthood, many are, since women are a valuable resource.

“There are lots of tech companies that are hiring,” Steinglass said. “It’s a competitive market right now and you have more leverage than you think you have. Find a boss who wants to make it work for you.”

Editor’s note: On Thursday March 24, GeekWire will run a special report on women in tech.

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