By: Tracey Cassidy
The recent McKinsey and LeanIn.Org “Women in the Workplace” study presents some harrowing statistics about the negative impact the global COVID-19 pandemic has had on working mothers. The study, which included 317 companies and more than 40,000 interviews, found women have been particularly impacted negatively and the pandemic has only added to the challenges women already faced.
As a working mother of two, I was not particularly surprised by these findings. But I was surprised to learn 25% of working mothers now consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely to juggle all of life’s demands during the pandemic.
Lockdowns and school closures caused by the pandemic have presented unprecedented challenges for everyone, but especially for women. On top of handling our day-to-day jobs, household responsibilities and childcare tend to fall upon women. We often cook three meals a day, then we serve as adjunct teachers, tutors and guidance counselors for our children on top of our day jobs. Not to mention the unending loads of laundry and cleaning required when all house occupants are home 24/7! It seems the work shifts never end.
Prior to the pandemic, progress was made, evidenced by an increase of women in leadership roles across industries. The pandemic now threatens that progress, and we are at risk of a major setback. Some have even called it a “pink recession.” While I don’t love that term, I believe organizations of all shapes and sizes need to understand the possible threat and negative implications of a mass exodus of women leaving the workforce.
While the “Women in the Workplace” study presents some challenging realities, we female leaders need to be part of the solution to combat this threat and come up with integrated and flexible solutions to help solve it.
After reading a CNBC op-ed by HP Chief Human Resources Officer Tracy Keogh and HP Chief Diversity Officer Lesley Slaton Brown, I feel more hopeful. The duo point out there’s not a silver bullet to retaining women during the pandemic. We must be innovative and individualized in our approaches to accommodate all working women. Flexibility is the No. 1 thing experts call out. Everyone’s situation is different, and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work.
An article in Harvard Business Review offers some advice for retaining working moms right now. Empathy was the thing that stood out the most to me. We’ve all seen the “we’re all in this together” messaging. But for us to truly live that motto, we need to be empathic to individuals and their struggles. That also means avoiding microaggressions or negative comments that can prohibit empathy.
After reading the McKinsey study, subsequent articles by leaders on possible solutions and reflecting on my own personal situation, I think there are several key things we female leaders can do to ensure we don’t reverse decades of progress.
- Remember Wonder Woman is a Fictional Character. You can’t do it all well all the time. There are days when I feel I could do more for my kids’ development, but it’s challenging to reconcile that with work deadlines. After virtual school ends, there are days when my kids are left to their own devices, most of the time playing video games. And that’s OK. I mean, some big tech companies see gaming as a strategic skill and one to tout in a job interview, right?
- Find a Mentor. If you don’t already have a mentor, now is the time to get one. I’ve found comfort in talking with other working mothers who have experienced similar struggles. It may not be at the same time, but they can relate. We’re all navigating this for the first time, and having a mentor who you can confide in and be brutally honest with is helpful. Mentors can offer an outside perspective and invaluable guidance. At Allison+Partners, we have several mentor programs. And our Women’s Leadership Program has female mentorships that can, and should be, tapped during this critical time.
- Take Breaks. Burnout is real. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. I found myself close to burnout about a month ago, and my husband was a critical help to me during that time. He essentially took over all the homework responsibilities, meals and daily home tasks so I could focus on work – and I’m grateful. Asking for help is not a weakness. It’s a strength and a tool that can help you manage it all. I also realized I need to take more breaks during the day. Even for five minutes to spray some lavender and breathe, take the dogs for a quick walk, or play a quick game of Ping-Pong with my kids.
- Lead with Empathy. I’m a big Brené Brown fan. Her talk on empathy vs. sympathy has always resonated with me, but it inspires me even more so now. She explains, “Empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.” As leaders, we need to share our own struggles and vulnerability, so others feel comfortable to do the same. Our boundaries between work and home have all but dissolved. This opens the door for vulnerability and empathy – and that’s a good thing. Check in with your teams, ask how they’re doing and what they need. If we’re all in this together, then we need to show up for each other.
In the days and months ahead, I will try to continue to heed my own advice and work to ensure working mothers feel supported and empowered and have the full commitment of our agency behind them.
Tracey Cassidy is the General Manager of Allison+Partners NYC office, the largest in the network. She is co-chair of Allison+Partners Women’s Leadership Program (WLP). Tracey brings more than 20 years of experience building brands and safeguarding their reputations. Follow her on Twitter @TraceyCassidy or LinkedIN.