Is Transparency The Tool Women Need to Revolutionize Their Workplaces?

Bryce CovertThe United States is one of just three countries in the world that doesn’t require paid maternity leave. Just 12 percent of people who work in the private sector are offered paid family leave. That’s one of many major hurdles women, particularly mothers, face in the workplace.

But women make up half of the labor force. So what can be done to change that picture so that they aren’t so often stuck between a rock and a hard place? Two new websites have one answer: transparency.

Ursula Mead is a self-described working mom and “data geek.” “I come from an area where data can really help you make good decisions and help you understand situations,” she explained.

So with InHerSight, a website that allows people to anonymously rate their workplaces on a variety of metrics such as paid maternity leave, flexible work, and women’s representation and opportunities, she’s decided to apply data to the problems facing women in the workforce. To her, it feels like a faster and more effective way to tackle them. “Some of the other solutions that are out there just weren’t resonating with me,” she said. “I don’t have time for a Lean In circle.” She noted that mentorship doesn’t address issues on a large enough scale, company initiatives are unaccountable to the employees themselves, and policy changes, while important, are “just slow.”

For Sarah Seltzer and Meredith Clark, the decision to start Having It Some, a Tumblr that collects anonymous submissions on companies’ paid family leave policies, came from watching friends struggle with parenting and work. “In the last two years, I’ve been hearing more and more horror stories from friends about companies that didn’t have any maternity leave or having to craft their own or getting job offers rescinded when they told their future bosses they were pregnant,” Seltzer said. “I started becoming really curious as to what companies offer new moms.”

Seltzer and Clark feel that it’s an important conversation to have, and sooner rather than later, but that many people aren’t thinking about it. “We talk about navigating salary negotiations or vacation benefits, but it doesn’t feel like there’s as much of a discussion around the importance of trying to figure out what you might be getting into where family leave is concerned,” Clark said. “We’re encouraging people to really start advocating and asking those questions as early as possible.”

That’s because Seltzer says she’s seen many friends’ careers derailed by workplaces that couldn’t accommodate their needs. “I think some women are changing their career options based on things like how family-friendly their workplace is rather than just what the best fit for them might be,” she said. “If there was more transparency, at least it would help people make informed decisions.” She also noted that being able to compare a particular company to the others tagged in the same industry can be useful. “That can actually give you leverage,” she said, to get a company to consider more generous benefits if peers are already doing the same.

Mead hopes InHerSight will give women a way to pick the right workplaces for their needs. Part of the mission is to “help women find what they’re looking for and improve what they get” at work, she said. She thinks women themselves are best able to articulate what they need as well as what’s actually happening inside a given company. “I’m giving them that platform,” she said.

She also thinks it will be useful to employers. “I think it’s in companies’ interests to figure out what they need to do to attract and retain that top female talent,” she said. “Companies could use this as a starting point for an action plan for themselves.” The website can certainly point out when a company’s policies are simply lacking. But it can get more nuanced metrics around those it already has about how comfortable female employees feel using them. Some companies have even told Mead they want to send the site to their employees to gather ratings. “They’re essentially saying that they are going to own these numbers and they want to be held accountable for them,” she noted.

Seltzer and Clark they also think that companies can respond to their anonymous data. “One person emailed me saying she works at a new company and they’re going to use one of the entries on our site to help model their policy because they think it’s good,” Seltzer noted.

Both websites recognize that men are increasingly interested in figuring work/life balance out as well. “I would love for men to open up their company handbooks,” Clark said. She noted that male friends have looked at their companies’ policies and realized that “things were written very clearly for new mothers or adoptive parents,” not necessarily new dads.

Mead agrees that men are also concerned about the things that her site’s ratings measure and that men are free to rate their companies as well. But she also noted that change shouldn’t happen just because men take up the cause. “I don’t want these things to just magically fall into place when men need them too,” she said. “That shouldn’t have to be the case.”

Both sites are new and will be most effective if they reach a larger scale. Mead says she is focused right now on getting more ratings, and while the site has thousands, she wants to take it to the hundreds of thousands. More data will mean deeper insights, such as being able to benchmark a company profile against others in the same industry or of the same size. She and her team are also working on rolling out new tools, such as seeing how the ratings on each metric vary for a given company. If a company gets a bunch of fives and ones on a given aspect, that may show something different than everyone giving threes, like perhaps using a policy “depends on your manager or your department or experiences across the company are varying widely,” she said.

Having It Some is also looking for more submissions, but has about 40 at the moment. “We have some good variety,” Seltzer noted.

The work both sites are trying to do is urgent. The United States used to beat other developed countries in our share of working women, but we’ve recentlybeen falling behind because of our lack of family-friendly policies. Meanwhile, women face discrimination or even termination for talking about their pregnancies or asking for changes to company policy. “We shouldn’t be working in an environment where a woman feels uncomfortable asking about a parental leave policy in a job interview,” Clark noted. Armed with data from these websites, women may have more options.

This article originally appeared in on March 26, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.