In December 2022, I went on maternity leave as the (very pregnant) chief operating officer and co-founder of Gatheround, a venture-backed tech startup that helps organizations build better team culture. In March 2023, I returned to work, as a new mom and the CEO of the company.
I announced my new role on LinkedIn–standard practice for this kind of move. Not-so-standard? I shared a photo that my husband snapped a few days earlier: me at my desk, breastfeeding our then-12-week-old baby while leading a team meeting online.
I had never encountered a nursing, postpartum CEO before, and I know what that representation would have meant to me earlier in my career. Still, the response was a surprise. The post blew up: nearly 5 million impressions, 45,000 reactions, thousands of comments, and hundreds of reposts. Inbound requests for demos of our platform tripled. And our volume of unprompted job applications skyrocketed overnight.
There were plenty of detractors, many of whom betrayed a deep and chilling misogyny, barely veiled as concern for my child and her welfare. If I were a male CEO, no one would ask who was taking care of the baby while I worked.
But most responses were extraordinary. Some defended me and my right to choose a path for my family. Others were from women my age, reaffirming that remote work made it possible for them to choose to have children. Many more were from women beyond their childbearing years who wondered what might have happened in their careers and their families if they had the choices that are available today.
The enthusiastic response from job seekers, most of whom are currently employed, was striking. Having autonomy over when and where we work has become non-negotiable for many. If an employer can’t provide that, people will vote with their feet, as the resumes in my inbox demonstrate. This should be a wake-up call to the many companies trying to push for a return to the dated office dynamics of 2019. The rise of flexible work is not a pandemic aberration–it’s a movement.
One response to the LinkedIn post that stayed with me was by Lisa Tweedie, a user experience designer and mom, who wrote: “Remote work absolutely changes the lives of parents and children. Anyone who wants to turn back that clock and send us back to the office full time really doesn’t know what they’re losing.”
Women, who report that they are happier and less burned out when they work remotely, are among the most vocal advocates. The 2022 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey and LeanIn found that nine out of 10 women want to work remotely all or part of the time. And “49% of women leaders said flexibility is one of the top three things they consider when deciding whether to join or stay with a company.”
Some 89% of American workers agree that mothers in leadership roles bring out the best in employees, and a study by Catalyst found that corporate governance improves when at least three board seats are held by women. Yet, just 26% of all C-Suite executives are women, and a recent Pew study found that only 24% of working mothers identify themselves as a top manager (compared with 35% of fathers). Companies can’t afford to lose these few women in leadership, but they are: Women leaders are leaving their current jobs at the highest rate on record–often for more flexible companies.
This is not to say that flexibility is a complete solution. To elevate more women to leadership positions, we need mandated paid leave, equitable hiring practices, and accessible, affordable childcare. This support is particularly important for BIPOC women, for whom motherhood is estimated to reduce earnings by an average of 20%, as compared to 10.2% for white women. We also need to repair the so-called “broken rung,” the tendency for entry-level women to be passed over for manager-level promotions.
I am in a position to balance motherhood and the CEO role in large part because of my privilege–my race, socioeconomic background, and access to education, a husband who shares the load at home, and the supportive community I have around me. Even so, the ability to work remotely, for both myself and my husband, is one of the essential conditions that allow me to make that choice.
We may not solve female representation in leadership with the single lever of flexible work. But it’s a powerful lever, and it would be an unconscionable waste not to use it.
When I’m working with the comfort of knowing that my daughter is napping just a room away, I live the promise of flexible work. It isn’t a pipe dream. It’s my reality and it can be the reality for many other working mothers if leaders embrace this opportunity to get flexible work right.
Lisa Conn is the co-founder and CEO of Gatheround.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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