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Siran Cao of Mirza: “Value the care economy”

Value the care economy. Traditionally gendered “women’s work,” the jobs that are in the care economy, from nursing, cleaning, retail, and yes, licensed child care, are all paid less. Just because childcare is so expensive, doesn’t mean the providers are well paid. Wages are incredibly low, and that cost is really coming down to increased […]

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Value the care economy. Traditionally gendered “women’s work,” the jobs that are in the care economy, from nursing, cleaning, retail, and yes, licensed child care, are all paid less. Just because childcare is so expensive, doesn’t mean the providers are well paid. Wages are incredibly low, and that cost is really coming down to increased rents, health and safety regulations, and more. It’s incredibly difficult for providers to stay afloat, even pre-pandemic. And, here’s where we have to acknowledge intersectionality: these jobs are also more often done by women of color. Many childcare centers are run by and employ BIPOC women, and to say those businesses have been hit hard is an understatement of epic proportions.


As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Siran Cao.

Siran is the Co-founder/CEO of Mirza. She firmly believes in the potential in business to be a force for good, and with the right match for bottom line and positive social impact, to plant the seeds for structural change. Siran graduated with a degree in Gender Studies from Harvard and had expected to go into academia or nonprofit, but what started as a short skills pursuit in the private sector turned into a passion for leadership, management, and operations. Siran built the driver support organization for Uber in New York and oversaw the support business for the US Northeast, before moving to London for a degree in Social Business & Entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics. With Mirza, she’s gone full circle and looks forward to bringing together her passions: women’s empowerment, structural change, and building a company of the future.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I’d call myself a social theorist at heart (read: nerd), who somehow stumbled into business. But if I’m going to say that, let’s start way back in the backstory. My family moved to America when I was 8, and I was in a public school with quite the income gap. In our initial years in America, my single mother raised me on the lower end of that range, and those years watching my mother — a biochemist in China — learn a new profession in a foreign language shaped my aspirations and thinking: women’s financial empowerment is my North Star.

Appropriately, I was a Gender Studies major at Harvard. I thought I’d spend my life researching and writing about oppressive gender norms, and hope that my research makes it into policy. Fortunately, my mother thought that I should get some “real world experience,” and I never left! I built the driver support organization for Uber in New York and oversaw that support business in the US Northeast, before moving to London for my Master’s at the London School of Economics. I had seen how innovation can create a new reality at Uber, and I firmly believe that business can be a force for social good and progress.

And that brings me full circle. Mirza blends my experiences, personal and professional, with that initial hope that academia influences stronger policy very much at the forefront of our business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Sure! Our first investor is someone I had met years ago in a workout class. We had become friends pretty quickly, both sharing a strange love of an intensely painful class. It’s the megaformer machine, if you’re curious, and for my New York friends, Brooklyn Bodyburn. After I had moved to London, David and I were catching up when I told him about Mirza. A few days later, he called with an idea to start a fund, now Foursight Capital Partners, to invest in women’s health and financial health. Great news, but a scramble for Mel, my co-founder, and me to learn the ropes of fundraising.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we first started, we were thinking about working on the wage gap in a very different way, much more focused on women. We were really excited about this concept to create a product that shows how our bodies and our careers intersect, and how employers can better support women. Mel, my co-founder, told one of her previous professors about it, someone we both respect a ton. Her reaction? “I hate it.” She saw that by focusing on women, just women, we were implicitly saying that the motherhood penalty is a women’s issue and a women’s issue alone. It makes women seem like a risk for employers. That’s reframed our entire thinking, and that’s led us to focus on parents, on men’s roles, and to make sure we’re thinking about the unintended consequences in everything we do.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2020, women still earn about 81 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

Alright, the fun stuff. Let’s start with breaking down the wage gap: the gap isn’t huge starting out, but it’s really when we start families that kicks off the gap. 80% of the wage gap is due to the “motherhood penalty.” Looking into the factors that creates the motherhood penalty, my favorite three:

First, we’re starting families at the time when our careers start to take off, but this is still a time with some of our lowest earnings. That sparks a calculus of “earnings this year” compared to childcare cost. (More on that next.) But that’s not the math we should be doing: we’re losing retirement savings, career growth potential, and more. Research has found that after 3 years, women leaving the workforce for caregiving lose 37% of earning power. There’s a wealth of research on the wage gap that can help women make more informed decisions, but we need that research to be in front of the people who need it at the time.

And to be completely clear, I’m not at all saying this math of salary and childcare trade-off is uninformed. Back to being in our lowest earnings time, and this is the next major factor. Childcare is so prohibitively expensive that it’s just not affordable for many families. In 33 states, infant care is more expensive than college. So we’re not always “choosing” to take a step back; we’re forced into these situations. In these situations, it’s not “stepping back;” it’s getting thrown out of a five-story window. Many working parents simply can’t afford childcare.

Finally, the workplace. Even when parents can afford childcare, there’s the issue of incongruity of working hours and childcare hours. Someone has to do daycare pickup, for example, or leave if a child unexpectedly gets sick. Because of ingrained cultural norms, care providers and schools default to calling the mother rather than either parent. Since these situations mean leaving work at certain hours, women take the reputational hit of not seeming committed, when realistically, many employees log back on at night, and working mothers are some of the most productive employees. This hours mismatch is one of the causes of the “leaky pipeline” of highly qualified women from the professional world. Now bear with me, one more contributor from workplaces to the wage gap: mothers are offered accommodations, going part time, etc.; fathers aren’t. This isn’t good for men either, to have to miss out on parts of fatherhood? Pervasive gender norms aren’t good for anyone. That’s a bonus fourth factor for you.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

I would absolutely love to. On an individual level, we’re helping bridge that gap between research and application I mentioned. Mirza’s app helps soon-to-be parents understand the long term financial implications of some key factors. It’s the informed decisions I was talking about earlier. And it’s so variable based on the individual, from occupations, to financial circumstances, to workplaces, so our app is built to help facilitate working out what’s best for you and your family, long term. Note that we’re talking about families and parents, not women. The gender wage gap should not just be a women’s issue.

From there, we help you map across paid and unpaid sources to get the childcare coverage you need. Many parents don’t fully recognize how much childcare support they need, because it’s across the full hours of the day. Having childcare worked out during work hours isn’t enough, so this is where utilizing the unpaid sources available, friends, family, community, really comes into play. Having a conversation about childcare starts to remove the stigma and helps people be more realistic and go in eyes wide open: it’s almost taboo to talk about getting some help from your family to watch the kids. We’re made to feel bad about paying for childcare when we do. It’s simply this cultural expectation still that “mom should be doing that.” Diatribe aside, we’re working on some ways to make childcare truly affordable, so stay tuned for that!

And finally, we work with employers to use all this data for family-friendly, inclusive policies at work, and long term, we’re looking at government policy.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

Paid parental leave. Iceland is currently the gold standard for parental leave, and the country is looking to close the gender pay gap in 5 years! There’s a full 12 months allocated between 2 parents, starting in 2021, and 9 months at the moment. A portion of the time is non-transferable, per parent, which means fathers have to take that leave, or it’s lost. As a result, men become comfortable with child rearing responsibilities. This is important, because that means more contribution in the future if both parents work. We’re seeing women shoulder the lion’s share of the unpaid care work and schooling during the pandemic, so having the comfort and skillset really matters.

Another policy, government funded childcare. A great example is Finland’s system. In Finland, the child is at home until usually 9 months, the end of parental leave, and then the local municipality provides very low cost daycare and early childhood education. The price for the family is determined based on family income, family size, and the hours usage for daycare. Low income families get this early childhood support entirely free. Government subsidized childcare would not be new in the States, either. During World War II, the Lantham Act funded childcare, so women could support the war effort at work.

There’s a “women don’t negotiate” trope. It’s simply not true. We have to, as a society, stop defaulting to that biased view. Research shows that women do negotiate, just as much as men do. Women are getting turned down more.

Tackle the second shift at home. Women do 3 times the unpaid work around the home that men do. That means, men wind up with more hours in the day to use towards work, self-care, hobbies, and fewer hours for women. I’m going to recommend Eve Rodsky’s book, Fair Play, all about this, and has even created a card game to help facilitate sharing the load.

Value the care economy. Traditionally gendered “women’s work,” the jobs that are in the care economy, from nursing, cleaning, retail, and yes, licensed child care, are all paid less. Just because childcare is so expensive, doesn’t mean the providers are well paid. Wages are incredibly low, and that cost is really coming down to increased rents, health and safety regulations, and more. It’s incredibly difficult for providers to stay afloat, even pre-pandemic. And, here’s where we have to acknowledge intersectionality: these jobs are also more often done by women of color. Many childcare centers are run by and employ BIPOC women, and to say those businesses have been hit hard is an understatement of epic proportions.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We’ve spoken so much about gender norms and childcare that I think I’ll need to pick another topic: rethink charity as empowerment. Let’s take tackling poverty as an example. Our racist history of redlining has effectively created neighborhoods segregated by race and class. What if we invest directly in the community? Monetary capital for home ownership, starting businesses, and more. Non-monetary support, educational programs, incubators, etc., to develop entrepreneurs. I’m willing to bet we see a stronger economy, an end to urban food deserts, and more.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” This is RBG, y’all. It’s so important to recognize that change is incremental and deliberate. Systemic change, what we’re trying to do at Mirza, enduring change, is a long haul.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’m having a hard time picking just one. How do you choose between Melinda Gates and MacKenzie Scott? This is a choice, of course, that’s focused squarely on closing the pay gap. These two incredible humans started the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, and I’d love to talk to them about funding childcare, using their platforms to push for government subsidies, and more. Of course, I’m keen to talk about how we’re pushing for gender equity at Mirza too.

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