Lauren Sato, CEO Ada Developers Academy

I ran the 400m hurdles in college. As I turned the corner to face the final 100 meters, I would see the hurdles coming, my legs feeling like rubber, and not even close to enough air in my lungs, but at least I could see them coming.  I knew what was ahead and how to train for it.  This past year I had a baby while leading an organization.  It was like being back on the track, running those hurdles; only half of the hurdles were invisible—no way to see them coming or prepare for them.  

As a CEO and mother to a newborn, I work every day to elevate more women into leadership positions while knowing the incredibly difficult path ahead for these folks.  But this is the work of our time.  According to Forbes, in January 2023, women comprised 10% of the top U.S. corporation CEOs. How many CEOs have had to hop on calls while breathing through contractions because economic crises don’t care about delivery dates?  How many are breastfeeding/pumping between (or during) Zoom calls? How many must navigate additional childcare, milk shipping, and airport pumping stations to make one business trip possible?  In an effort to prepare for these things myself, I joined Chief – the country’s largest organization for executive women—and I put out the call:

I received three responses—none from CEOs.  

The Invisible Hurdles

While there has been some good progress in raising visibility on the challenges women face when trying to advance their careers (like the U.S. being the only developed nation to not provide paid family leave or childcare for new parents), there are so many that remain unseen.  And we can’t solve what we can’t see.  So here are a few things I have seen women – especially mothers – struggle to overcome that I would like to elevate:

  • No two pregnancies, births, and postpartum periods are alike, but we provide one size fits all policies 
  • The mental load of being a parent and caregiver is still shouldered mostly by women
  • Business leaders assume that mothers don’t have the capacity for leadership roles
  • Household labor is still shouldered mostly by women
  • Paternity leave is often still less than maternity leave, and there is a stigma around its utilization
  • The wage gap makes the supports (like childcare) needed even less affordable for women trying to advance their careers

…and that’s just the big stuff. There are also smaller but nontrivial barriers like the lack of workwear for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. I’ll never forget wearing a maternity dress into the office for the first time and the knowing mamas on my team looking at me sympathetically and saying, “Oh. You’ve crossed into maternity clothes. We’re so sorry.”  I’d like to see a man get mentally ready for a board meeting wearing a tent.

More Support for Advancing Women

If we are really serious about seeing more women in our highest leadership positions, we must address these barriers in tangible and systemic ways.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Equal Pay – we cannot expect women to make less, especially while shouldering more of the burden of family life (remote work has only increased this imbalance)
  • Comprehensive paid leave policies – equal time for male caregivers, flexibility on when the leave is taken, encouragement for all parents to take advantage of family leave
  • Free Mental Health Therapy – acknowledge the strain of balancing work and home and destigmatize mental health therapy
  • Child and home care support – let’s get creative with benefits and how to reduce the mental and tangible load of managing a family
  • Access to supportive care for pregnancy loss and termination

On Top of It All

It is incredibly important to note here that the level of difficulty for women of color and transgender people aspiring to leadership positions is even higher.  When you add to the issues above the disparity in maternal health care Black women face, or the lack of access to care transgender people face, it becomes a superhuman feat of resilience and endurance to achieve career advancement.  We have to address these issues if we are ever to achieve truly inclusive and representative leadership teams.

The Finish Line

Despite all of the challenges women face in reaching our highest levels of leadership, I have great hope that we will continue to increase our ranks.  I have seen firsthand how powerful, dedicated, and resilient women of all backgrounds can lead in the workplace. And how much stronger our companies and communities can be when we support women as they lead.