The next phase of the women’s movement is about embracing ambition and care simultaneously, and equally.
Motherly @ Work features the stories and insights of modern women growing their careers—and their families.
Like Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean co-founders and co-CEOs of Werk—a platform providing flex job opportunities to women everywhere. Werk supports that life you envision—you know, the one where you’re able to find that elusive balance between work and life—conference calls and family dinners together at the table. Think jobs where working remotely or limited in-office face time is the norm.
Werk wants you to advance your career without feeling like you need to give anything up. We caught up with Anna and Annie to find out what their hopes and dreams for Werk is and how they came together in the first place.
What made you decide to start Werk? How did the collaboration between you two happen?
Anna Auerbach: I’ve had a dozen entrepreneurial ideas over the years. A few I tried, and most were just passing thoughts. But I’d been fixated on the idea of the challenges of women and work, particularly after my son was born. I had been kicking around the initial idea for Werk for about a year, but I needed the right partner to get it off the ground.
Annie Dean: After my second son was born, he had some medical issues I didn’t anticipate. His birth refocused my priorities. I have always been someone with big dreams, and I knew it was time to leave my comfortable law firm job and act on them. I called all my closest girl friends and said, “Look, I want to talk to the smartest women you know. I want to hear what they’re doing.” And very quickly I was introduced to Anna. At the end of an hour long conversation she mentioned the business she’d been dreaming about for a while. We built a business plan, financial projections and our vision in a week, and we’ve been sprinting ever since.
What was the need in the market for a service like this?
Anna Auerbach: The best businesses solve a problem the founders know intimately. Annie and I both spent our careers in high-level professional services. We both observed that women were leaving the leadership track in droves, usually because they couldn’t reconcile their career with motherhood, and those that stayed were unbelievably overstressed and overtired.
Annie Dean: When I was a young law firm associate at my firm I was like, “What women’s movement?!” I worked so hard, I fought for the best opportunities, I was compensated fairly, I spoke up for myself, and the men (and women) listened to me. But when I was 27, I got pregnant for the first time and the pregnancy was clearly viewed as a lack of commitment. I was hospitalized during the pregnancy because I was overworked. And when I came back, it was clear that no one respected me anymore. My work streams were gone. I was miserable and my confidence was destroyed.
No matter how hard I worked I couldn’t get anywhere, not at home and not at work. It took me a year to recover from that environment. Then I started critically thinking about what happened. I realized the situation was not my fault, and that potentially it was an institutional failure that could be fixed.
As a culture, we need to figure out how to help women on their way to the top stay on track in the context of caregiving.
Women are going to keep having children. This is an exciting fact for the future of the human race! But unless we fix things, women are going to keep getting squeezed out of the leadership track.
Do you feel the workforce is currently changing for the better for mothers?
Annie Dean: We’re making progress—good progress in some areas—but it’s incremental and based on patching up a broken system that often systematically disadvantages women and parents. The hidden underlying premise inherent in an all-or-nothing work culture, is: “Working moms don’t belong here, at least not right now.” We reject that premise. We’re insulted by it. And we think fellow mothers should be too.
As high-level employees, we’ve been encouraged to focus on achievement, and outsource care. But that’s not what we want.
The next phase of the women’s movement is about embracing ambition and care simultaneously, and equally.
Women need flexibility to perform at their highest potential, and to advance. Companies need women in the highest positions of leadership. If companies do not provide and encourage flexibility, they will force women to opt-out or force them off the leadership path.
We aren’t going to solve this problem by telling women to cobble together freelance work for five years while they have small children. We aren’t going to solve this problem with “family friendly policies” if there isn’t any support for women who need flexible work arrangements, which demoralizes the high-performing women who need them, and the high-potential women that work under them. We are going to solve this problem by building real, advancement-track positions that are compatible with the lives of the talented women that are qualified to fill them—and that’s what Werk is all about.
Is there one key ingredient for making working motherhood work? Is it flexibility? Something else?
Annie Dean: Empathy. Working moms need empathy from the people in their lives, and they need to be patient with themselves. Ultimately, flexibility is about empathy.
How can companies improve conditions for working parents—so that they retain the best of the best talent (some of which are parents) by creating an environment that parents can thrive in?
Annie Dean: We need women to consult on these issues—particularly younger women who are less entrenched in company culture and can be truly vocal about what their needs are.
In the absence of that advice, we need male leaders to actively imagine what it’s like to be a woman and what our needs are. We need flexibility in terms of our in-office hours. We need the ability to respond to our family landscape, like come in late if our kid has a doctor’s appointment or was up all night with a fever. We need breast feeding facilities, and market-rate family leave policies.
These are the very basic elements of what it means to create an inclusive environment for women. There are many, many other aspects of integration that are more subtle. But let’s focus on what we can win at.
What kinds of roles do you offer?
Anna Auerbach: We offer full-time flex and part-time senior-level positions. The full-time flex roles that we offer are regular, full-time, full-compensation, promotion-track roles. They just have an element of flexibility built in. That could mean that the you head out at 5pm every day to eat dinner with your family and put your kids in the bath, so that you can plug back in after bedtime. Or it could mean one or two days working from home, or unlimited vacation days, among other things.
We help women negotiate the deal that works best for them by normalizing the conversation.
The part-time roles we offer are senior level positions at small, scaling start-ups, like a part-time CFO or part-time COO. Startups want the exceptional talent, but they can’t compete with the full-time salaries at big law firms or banks. So we find them the best talent on a part-time salary. And we provide the women with a part-time role that is worthy of her time.
When sourcing our opportunities we require that each role is both flexible and ambitious. No more motherhood penalty, no more mommy track.
How can women use their maternity leave to reimagine or to advance their career?
Annie Dean: I love this question! My two maternity leaves were my most creative and productive periods of my life. I built a company during my first maternity leave, which ultimately failed. And during my second maternity leave, I built Werk with Anna.
Maternity leave can be crazy and very unstructured, and instead of imposing order on the experience, I really let myself just take each day as its own adventure. After I recovered and got settled, I read so many books! I stayed inspired! I sang to my babies a lot. I had so much “free time” to think creatively and think big. As all new moms know—“free time” is a relative term.
The days were disjointed and bizarre. I wore the same outfit everyday and never really washed my hair. I slept in 2 hour increments. But I was able to do a lot of things for my soul.
What inspires you to do this work?
Anna Auerbach: I spent the last eight years of my career in nonprofit and philanthropy. I’ve always been committed to making a difference and, at the same time, being very entrepreneurial. Werk combines those drives in the most perfect way. Every day, I wake up motivated to move this business forward. Not only am I ensuring that women never feel forced to opt out when they didn’t intend to—but it’s also amazing to build a business from the ground up.
What are your hopes and dreams for Werk?
Anna Auerbach: We’re out to reinvent work for women…millions of them. The vision is lofty, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Werk is the only company out there bringing leadership ambitions and motherhood into focus at a scalable level. We see ourselves as the future of the women’s movement—valuing care and career equally. And we’re working like crazy to advance the cause. Demonstrating to the investment community that betting on what women want wins. Influencing business leaders and cultures at large to get the best out of their women employees. And, most importantly, empowering every professional woman who crosses our path.
How did you come up with the name Werk, and what is the symbolism behind the name?
Annie Dean: WORK is all about showing up, going through the motions.
WERK is about nailing it, looking in the mirror and knowing, “I GOT this.”
But no one woman is going to fix this problem on her own. We need to do it together. That’s our inspiration: this generation of women is game-changing. We can’t turn work into werk without the we.
What does “Motherly” mean to you?
Annie Dean: Being motherly is about resilience. It’s about being tough enough to keep giving long after our reserves of patience are gone. As mothers we choose love on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Nothing has made me tougher, more focused or more dedicated than motherhood, and no experience has been more hard-won.
Anna Auerbach: Being motherly means it’s not about you anymore. It’s about this amazing tiny person. And how you ruthlessly reprioritize every day to make sure you do right by them.
?Can we get a slow clap for these ladies? ?