Chosen as one of the speakers during the Forbes Power Women’s 2020 Summit last December, Reshma Saujani, lawyer and politician, has carved a place for herself as an advocate of gender equality and women’s rights. Her trailblazing efforts advocating for the needs and rights of women made her a force to reckon with and have attracted the attention of media and top leaders. Best known for being the founder of Girls Who Code in 2015, she was named in Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 list. She has been invited to give TED Talks, which got enormous numbers of views and is well known author of Brave, Not Perfect that calls for a new approach on how to raise girls in our societies.
Last December Saujani released a statement urging then President-elect Joe Biden to launch a Marshall Plan for Moms, a proposal that addresses the pay gap and what the pandemic has done to women. She has proposed a means-tested $2,400 monthly payment to women along with a “long overdue” parental leave, affordable childcare and pay equity. She added that it should be implemented by a task force led by a designated “caregiving czar,” which renowned philanthropist Melinda Gates suggested in a Washington Post op-ed. Gates wrote that the coronavirus has “laid bare what was painfully clear to many families already. The caregiving system in the United States is broken and it is women who are paying the price.”
Saujani agrees, “Since March which is when stay-at-home orders and distance learning started in several states, mothers have been working simultaneously as teachers and counselors and cleaners and nurses and nannies and chefs and tech support and the list goes on.” Countless women have been forced to cut their working hours, scale back their careers or leave the workforce entirely in order to be full-time caregivers. It’s true that not all caregivers are women, but the vast majority are, she says.
This position has been endorsed by the Europe/Eurasia director of Equality Now. Reported by yahoo!life, Saujani has made a call for President Joe Biden to create a “task force dedicated to implementing Marshall Plan for Moms” during the first 100 days. (History refresher: The original Marshall Plan passed in 1948 and provided funding which totaled more than $12 billion, to help Western Europe rebuild after the war.”)
In a Twitter response to Melinda Gates’ comment, “Why women must be at the center of Rebuilding after Covis-19: If global leaders respond accordingly, the crisis that disproportionately impacted women will be followed by a recovery that puts them at the center,” Saujani said, before the pandemic, women were more than half the workforce in this country. But since Covid 19 hit, women have left the workforce at four times the rate of men.
“The fact that the labor market participation of women is where it was in the 1980s means we’ve got a real problem in this country,” she said in conversation with marketplace.org. Asked if she saw getting women into technology as the way out, she replied: We’ve lost women in industries that are in hospitality, service, education and healthcare, many of these jobs aren’t coming back because of automation and because of the way things have shifted. So we have to invest in retraining women, so they’re less vulnerable in future recessions.
In the past year, with the closure of so many college campuses and the expansion of remote learning due to the pandemic, Saujani and her team maintained a virtual summer program where students in need received hotspots and devices for their home. The program’s 5,000 students were encouraged to build a tool that would serve a problem they are facing. Many students chose to create websites to elevate the latest efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement. One group created a site combating racial microaggressions and another focused on celebrating Black girls’ natural hair. In a statement released in June she said she “recognized the intersectionalities that women of color face in the tech space.” She said issues of pay inequity, healthcare, voter suppression and police brutality are all interconnected.
In August as the coronavirus pandemic deepened and students across the U.S. were forced to learn from home without WiFi or relatable devices, Saujani began to advocate for providing the opportunity to teach more girls to code. “More than ever before, every girl has to learn to code”, she said during a Time100 Talk.
One of Saujani’s latest tweets said, “Moms are hurting right now. Black and Latina moms are losing jobs at unprecedented rates”. A couple of days earlier she said it was unacceptable and heartbreaking to hear the news that 2,500 students had fallen off the New York City education department’s radar since city schools closed in March 2020, urging the mayor to do better.
Saujani is best known for being the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. Established in 2012, the non-profit works to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a computer programmer looks like and does. Girls Who Code or GWC is leading the movement to inspire, educate and equip young women with computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities. Until August 2020, GWC had helped over 300,000 girls learn to code. Saujani says, “These are the jobs of the future and we have to make sure that no children are left behind.”
In an interview with marketplace.org in 2017, Saujani mentioned that during the campaign, she visited local schools and saw the gender gap in computing classes firsthand and this spurred her to start GWC. She expressed her alarm at the fact that “Over the past 40 years, we’ve had this dramatic decline of women in tech. If you walked into a computer science classroom in the 1980s, almost 37 percent of the students would have been female, and today that number is less than 18 percent.” The irony is not missed: At a time when technology is a part of everything we do and automation is changing our world by the minute, we’re leaving girls behind. Admitting that there is sexism and misogyny in the tech field in general and in Silicon Valley in particular, she says the only way to change that is by pure infiltration. A critical mass of women in technology is vital, she believes.
Born in 1975 in Illinois, to Gujarati parents who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda in the early 1970s, Saujani lives in New York with her entrepreneur husband Nihal, their son Shaan and their bulldog Stanley. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Yale Law School, Saujani began her career as an attorney and activist. In 2004 she founded South Asians for Kerry during the presidential elections. She served on the National Finance Board for Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign. Following the primaries, she was named vice-chair of the New York delegation at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
In 2010 Saujani became the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. Her previous work for and link to Wall Street firms was seen as a liability to her credibility and acceptance by Democratic primary voters. She challenged the Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney. Saujani had the support of Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, Randi Zuckerberg of Facebook, Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and Alexis Maybank, co-founder of Gilt Groupe. Her campaign was the first in the country to use technology tools like Square Inc and she had spent $1.3 million on the whole campaign. She lost the primary and in 2013 she ran as a Democratic candidate for New York Public Advocate, coming third in the primary.
In 2013 she wrote her first book Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way. Summarizing the main idea, she says, “We live in an era when girls are told they can do anything. So why aren’t we seeing more women rising to the top ranks of corporation and the government?” Serving as an urgent wakeup call the book argues that aversion to risk and failure is the final hurdle holding women back in the workplace. The author advocates a new model of female leadership based on sponsorship – where women encourage each other to compete, take risks embrace failure and lift each other up personally and professionally. Well, in the seven years since this book came, we can see there has been some progress!
Saujani has served as the Deputy Public Advocate at the Office of the New York Public Advocate. Currently she serves on the Board of Overseers for the International Rescue Committee, which provides aid to refugees and those impacted by humanitarian crises. She also serves as an ex-officio Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). She has been working with Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen on drafting legislation to help encourage states to report their data on gender diversity.
As someone who has been watching intently the fallout of the pandemic and chalked out a formula for the government’s action plan to ameliorate the situation, Reshma Saujani is indeed a woman of action—a woman to watch.