It is 11 p.m. My phone battery is dying. I am sitting at Gate A10 at San Francisco International Airport holding my 9-week-old baby, surrounded by a laptop and a breast pump. A muffled voice announces that my flight will take off two hours and 10 minutes late. I know immediately how I will use the time. I started a company this year, and the work is endless; eight months after launch, I have 15 employees and an entire business to grow and manage. But there is also the issue of the baby in my lap. I compromise and dictate a to-do list into my phone.
The average age of a first-time tech entrepreneur is 39. This is an inconvenient age for a family’s primary caretaker, particularly for a caretaker also tasked with gestation, birth and nursing. Take me, for example: I had three daughters in the span of three years and 12 days. But what I found even more challenging than starting a company while surviving first-trimester morning sickness and a toddler’s sleep regression was my attempt to somehow “have it all” in today’s outdated, inflexible corporate America.
We talk often about the glass ceiling, but we talk less about the “maternal wall,” the barrier built by discrimination against working mothers. I was a successful corporate litigator for a decade, working for elite law firms and Fortune 500 companies. When I became a mother, my commitment was questioned: If I could not be at my desk every day from 9 to 6, could I do the job? If I worked at home on a Tuesday, was I really working?
What finally became my breaking point wasn’t unique: On parental leave with my second baby, I asked my boss to consider me for an open position that would have been a promotion. He looked at me across a desk. I don’t know who he saw: a tired mother? An accomplished attorney? The end of a story? He said, “We’ve discussed it internally, and it isn’t the right time because you’ve just had a baby.” I smiled in an attempt to hide my disappointment. And also my shock. I did not report the incident to anyone because I feared retaliation, but also because I saw my boss as a “good guy” and did not want to “hurt” him. Here’s the thing, though: Even the “good guys” can be wrong. And all men benefit from an America in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Indeed, women are 15 percent less likely than men to get promoted — and a mother is half as likely to be promoted as a childless woman.
We sent women to work in this country decades ago as we embraced feminism. History pretends that we invited them to the table. But we let them into the room without giving them a seat, let alone a chance to sit down. This tightrope walk is nearly impossible: 43 percent of highly trained professional women with children leave the workforce at some point in their careers. The system is broken, and we know it. Yet we do nothing. Instead, we celebrate the woman who can juggle a career and children with grace, as if this is some sort of achievement. It isn’t.
I tried to make an end run around the maternal wall by leaving the office park and launching my own business. I hoped that by founding a company, I could avoid the doubts about my commitment to work that arose from being a mother. I was not alone: Women start businesses at a rate five times faster than men, launching 1,000 new businesses a day. I credit this to resourcefulness. If the old men hanging on to the glory days of the old boys club refuse to open the door, women will just set up shop and work outside.
Except it turns out that the maternal wall touches everything. Walk into a bank or talk to an investor, and you’ll see the bricks. Female business owners are offered smaller loans for shorter terms at higher rates than men. Only 2.19 percent of venture capital dollars went to women in 2016, when 5,839 male-founded companies received VC funding, compared with 359 female-founded companies. A prolific angel investor a few years ago claimed that “a pregnant founder/CEO is going to fail her company.”
That man is wrong. Many women, like me, launch companies while pregnant or with small children. Even though my first two daughters were somehow counted against me in corporate America, I knew I wanted another child. I also, of course, wanted to start a company. So I did both at the same time. Now that the baby is here, I hope that my work and the work of other mothers can set an example for the next wave of female entrepreneurs. But I also hope those women do not hear the same things I did. One adviser suggested that I hide my pregnancy from potential investors because they would only “see me as a vessel.” Another investor explained his commitment to female founders by telling me he had just invested in an incredible entrepreneur who was “absolutely gorgeous, like a supermodel.” And one final potential partner asked me at the end of an hourlong pitch if I was “physically prepared” to build a national company given that I had three children.
While I nurse my baby on the airport floor, I think back to my last days of lawyering. I told my boss I was leaving to start a company. He told me that he thought I’d have a latte and stay home. That was one year ago. Every day is different now. I never imagined I would be flying around the country with a newborn, hoping my milk wouldn’t leak during an investor pitch. Some men, like my old boss, may never get it. Some men will keep trying to build more walls. Women, though? We will keep showing up. Doing the work. And we will take down that wall, brick by brick.
Nelson is the founder and chief executive of the Riveter, a venture-backed female-forward platform for entrepreneurs and freelancers. She is a graduate of the NYU School of Law and the mother of three daughters.