How Patagonia got more women into senior roles

How Patagonia Got More Women Into Senior Roles

When Phil Graves worked for Deloitte, his days looked just like those of many working professionals.

He left home before his three young daughters were up, to commute to work in San Francisco.

He sped through his day, and raced home just in time for bath, bedtime stories, a few snuggles before lights out for the kids, dinner with his wife and a burst of emails before bed.

“All my quality time with my daughters was on weekends,” he said.

And that was a good version of what most working parents experience. Deloitte offers some of the most family-friendly benefits in corporate America.

It has featured on Fortune’s “Top 100 Companies to work for” for 17 years and was recently named as a top company by Working Mother magazine.

Graves is now head of Patagonia’s venture fund and his days are completely different. For one, he now sees his children a lot.

For 33 years Patagonia has had an on-site child care centre that bears little resemblance to what you might expect corporate on-site child care to look like.

Run by teachers trained in child development, some of whom are bilingual, the learning takes place outdoors as much as in.

Parents often get to eat lunch with their kids, take them to the farmer’s market or join them in the “secret” garden to pick vegetables.

Patagonia buses school-aged kids back to the company’s headquarters, meaning parents can connect with them after school over chocolate milk.

Graves stays connected to his kids throughout the work day. “It lets you be the kind of parent you want to be,” he said.

The child care program was not created to fight the war for talent, or because its executives wanted to reduce the number of women leaving before reaching senior management levels.

When Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s iconic founder, and his wife Malinda started the company, they employed friends and family and wanted to support them as they worked, and started families.

The aim was not to fix a problem, but to respond to what humans need, including a space to nurse newborns, and to provide safe and stimulating child care.

The results from the three decades are not surprising:

  • 100% of the women who have had children at Patagonia in the past five years have returned to work, significantly higher than the US average of 79%.
  • About 50% of managers are women, and 50% of the company’s senior leaders are women.

“It’s a natural outcome of providing this kind of support, not just to working mums but to working dads too,” Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia said.

Marcario has worked for all kinds of conventional, not-exactly-progressive companies.

She was an executive vice president responsible for mergers and acquisitions and private placements for Capital Advisors, a private equity company in Los Angeles. She was also chief financial officer at General Magic, a spin-off from Apple.

She said the focus there was never on how to support new mothers who needed child care or fathers who wanted to be part of their kids’ lives, but rather on managing the “problem” of pregnancy, and its outcome: demanding babies and needy children.

“We wonder why in corporate America women are absent at these levels,” she said. But the answer is actually not that difficult, or expensive she says. “You have to value care-giving.”

Patagonia’s Ventura child care centre, called the Great Pacific Child Development Centre (GPCDC) costs around $1 million a year to run, not including tuition fees, or the costs parents pay. It employs 33 staff over two sites that serve 80 kids.

The Ventura site recoups 91% of the cost ($500,000 through tax breaks, 30% through the value of retention, and 11% in employee engagement). As a percentage of all selling, general and administrative costs, it is 0.005%.

This does not seem unaffordable.

“Can businesses have the imagination to figure this out?” said Marcario. “I was a public company CFO and we could always find .005%.”

The two child care centres are not free to employees. Tuition is based on market rates, so the Ventura site, for example, is more expensive than the Reno site and fees differ according to age.

The median cost of full-time infant child care in Ventura is $1,400; the maximum monthly cost for infants aged 8 weeks to 2 years at Patagonia’s Ventura site is $1,275, and the company subsidizes the cost depending on household income.

This is not rocket science

Yet corporations continuously struggle to understand why the share of women, who represent 50% of post-college or university intake, shrinks so drastically after that.

They need to pay attention to Patagonia, whose 100% of mothers-return-to-work figure really offers us insights.

“I wish it was 97.5% because 100% just doesn’t sound accurate,” says Dean Carter, head of human resources, and formerly head of human resources for Sears.

Carter worked at Sears for nearly five years, where off-site child care was offered. He hadn’t thought about it much until he joined Patagonia, and saw how much it meant to people.

When his former chief of staff joined him at Patagonia, he got to know the manager’s two sons. “I now know them personally. I know what they like to eat,” he said.

Everyone is more connected, and people tend to behave better knowing kids are around. “After years of working in human resources, I would have never guessed the impact it does have.”

How to scale it

Here’s a list of some of what Patagonia offers:

  • New mothers get 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave and fathers and adoptive mothers get 12 weeks of fully paid leave (this applies 9 months after you start, so if you get pregnant on your first day of work, you are eligible).
  • The child care is run by very well-trained teachers (who support things like the idea that effort matters more than raw ability).
  • Fields trips regularly include visiting the beach, library and horse rescue centre, along with cooking in the “messy kitchen” and building things in the yard.
  • Parents who need to travel for work can bring their kids and a partner or nanny with them—Patagonia foots the bill. If their partner can’t come, one of the teachers can.
  • Mothers get full access to their infants, and nursing in meetings is fine, though plenty of women just go next door to nurse.

Other companies are catching on with some offering on-site care, often outsourced.

Home Depot’s corporate campus boasts 66,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, with a basketball court, three playgrounds and a water park, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Tech companies have begun competing over parental leave benefits.

Netflix offers unlimited paid parental leave for a year after the birth or adoption of a child, surpassing Facebook, which was the parental leave champion, with four months of paid parental leave.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers 52 weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave.

Even finance companies are joining in. KKR has expanded its offering to include paying to fly a nanny with employees on business trips.

According to the Wall Street Journal, one of the main drivers for this change was to “to attract and keep more talented women, who make up 18% of the firm’s 510 investment professionals and about 31% of its staff, and to encourage more fathers to take meaningful parental leave.”

The story then expands on this, saying with all these benefits in place, mums can continue working 70-hour-weeks.

Some might argue that such jobs aren’t for people who want balance. But that view doesn’t go down well with millennials, who are soon to make up 75% of the workforce.

They expect meaning in their work, and respect for their life outside of work. Carter says that they may be putting off kids and families for now, but not forever.

“If this group were so insistent about bringing their pets to work, you don’t think they will be as insistent about bringing their kids to work?” Carter said.

Of course, Patagonia is no average company. It is a famously lefty, care-about-the-world kind of company.

In 2005, Chouinard wrote a book called Let my People Go Surfing, which became a cult bible among some, encouraging his employees to have a rich life beyond work, and to not just focus on profits

Their mission statement: “Make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

It once created an ad encouraging people not to buy a jacket, since it would damage the environment to make it.

(Executives later said it was to remind customers to think whether they needed it, and to use Patagonia’s lifetime product guarantee).

It also just developed a non-neoprene wetsuit because neoprene is a non-renewable, petroleum-based product which takes a lot of energy to make—and plans to share the formula with competitors in a bid to reduce petroleum-product consumption.

These are not common things for most companies. So this makes it all too easy for others to say they can’t follow suit.

Carter says the issue is a case of priorities. “It’s so easy to come up with an excuse—we are too big, or too small, or too space-constrained. That will become more difficult in the very near future.”

But Patagonia does offer an example of what benefits look like when you focus on what people need, rather than what you need to do to stay competitive.

According to Carter, in its early days, Yvon Chouinard decided that the company should base decisions on the premise that it would be in business for 100 years, and that employees would stay for their whole career.

There are already a few employees who came through the child care system, and even one grandchild.

What work-life balance can look like

Here’s how Graves day now looks. He takes most of his family to work with him in the morning. Ruby, 4, goes to the child care centre, and he walks Lily, 7, to the bus stop to go to school.

Patagonia buses Lily back to HQ after school, where Graves meets with her for a snack. He’s read to them at nap time, watched their plays about Earth Day, and fall harvest, and taken them to Patagonia farmer’s market.

“These are parts of their day I never got to be part of before,” he said.

He is more connected to his kids, as are his co-workers, which makes him more connected to them.

Graves’ day is a stark contrast to most working parents who miss all these moments with their kids.

What Graves described is a working parents’ utopia: The opportunity to connect with your kids at key moments in their day without feeling like you are slacking at work.

He didn’t have to leave his job or do it less well to be there for his daughters.

Of course, many parents don’t even have the right to paid time off with a baby, and affordable child care.

Patagonia is doing its bit to change that and decided to share its child care story with the world because it wants to encourage other companies to follow suit.

Before joining Patagonia, Graves considered himself as a very hands-on dad. He went backpacking with his kids, knew their favourite books, and put in the evening hours bathing and reading to them.

But what he is able to do now is fundamentally different. He gets to see them in their life, on their plane, as they are, doing their things.

He says his relationship with his daughters is now richer, the natural outcome of simply being around more.

If it takes a village to raise a child, Graves has found his village. It’s just a shame it’s so small.

We’d love to hear your thoughts around Patagonia’s approach to looking after employees and getting more women into management. Leave your comments below.

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