Redefining the Workplace for Women Post COVID-19

On March 31, 2021, three inspiring women joined UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business Manbassadors, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL), and Financial Women of San Francisco in a discussion around the impacts and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on workplace wellness. Our speakers shared their perspectives and reactions to the record numbers of women dropping out of the workforce and the continued physical and mental health implications for the women who remain.

Prior to the pandemic, 75% of “unpaid work” — from childcare, to caretaking, to cooking, to housework — had been done by women, who spend an average of 3 to 6 hours per day on these activities alone outside of their paid jobs. Today, “The reality is: women are working more… they’re performing the role as primary caregiver — for older adults, children of all ages, friends who rely on them for support,” says Kate Phillips, SVP of Bank of America’s Life Event Services. In our post-COVID world, women are experiencing an even greater lack of boundaries between work and home, and as a result, faster burn out than usual.

It is more apparent than ever that existing workplace policies, systems, and culture demand change. In a time where efficiency, long hours, and a “say yes” mentality have been traditionally rewarded, our speakers called for a reckoning — that we don’t have to keep doing it all, and that it’s okay to not be okay.

More than anything, we have to create workplaces that cultivate psychological safety. To do so, leaders have an incredible opportunity to take the first step in being vulnerable and naming the ugly. “We have to normalize this conversation of self-care and choose to be vulnerable… the only way to allow someone else to be vulnerable is to be courageous enough to be vulnerable first,” advises Kellie McElhaney, professor at Berkeley Haas and founder of EGAL. While admitting weakness in the workplace can be a terrifying experience, being vulnerable is the birthplace of powerful, meaningful connection: it helps us not only understand who we are at our core, but also allows us to connect with one another better than shielding our imperfections. Through vulnerability, leaders have a real opportunity to “…stop relating to humans as cogs working on a machine, but as people who have real feelings. They’re a lot more productive when you take care of the humanity inside of them,” says Akeisha Johnson, leadership and performance coach at An Inspired Story Coaching.

However, it’s not enough to just talk about self-care and set the tone to broach tough topics. Leaders also need to model their messages with action. Kate describes her experience in accidentally sending an article about her burnout to her team at 8pm. “I’m sending the wrong message right there,” she laughs. Kate admits she is still learning, and she recommends for leaders to back up their messages on alleviating burnout with tangible tools and resources, such as days off, benefits for mental health, and summer hours. Leaders can advocate within their places of work for better extended family leave policies as well as help employees develop soft skills, such as listening and empathy.

How might we change the culture in our organizations for the better? The conversation had us reflecting on 3 primary steps:

  1. Reverse mentoring: “One thing senior leaders do: they have lost touch with the worker,” says Kellie. A way to overcome this is by putting a reverse mentorship program in place. Reverse mentoring pairs a junior employee with executive team members to mentor them on various topics that can give them new insight into the company’s strategy or culture. This approach can enable better connection and inclusion across the organization and bring new trends to the forefront. In fact, this approach has a precedent: in the late 1990’s, GE’s Jack Welch used reverse mentoring to teach senior executives about the internet.
  2. Speak up: Continue to speak up in your workplace and advocate for issues that are important to you, even if your opinion is not the popular one. Taking a hard stance defines your commitment to yourself and to other employees, and is the beginning of helping everyone to feel safe within an organization. “This is tough to hear, but my grammy used to say. ‘Closed mouths don’t get fed.’ It’s not going to happen if you’re not saying the things you need to say. Culture change really begins with you. When you speak up and say, ‘hey, this is not sustainable.’ Does it require bravery? Yes. Does it require risk? Yes. You can’t get big payoffs unless you take big risks,” says Akeisha. In addition, don’t forget to put your exit strategy in place — do you have yourself set up just in case you need to, or have finances or a person to support you if need be?
  3. Creating avenues for sponsorship: Being a sponsor means advocating for your mentee; sponsors talk about their mentees and create opportunities they otherwise might not be able to access on their own. Sponsors can actively endorse employees and elevate their status within promotion conversations.

Regardless of what these coming months bring, COVID-19 has given us all a chance to reflect on current issues we’ve been facing in the workplace and propose changes to transform our organizations for the better. “There’s a constant need to widen the aperture,” says Kellie. “We don’t want to go back to normal, because normal wasn’t serving a large swath of our society.”

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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