Episode #45: Working Parents during COVID – Leverage Their Value with Dr. Dana Sumpter
A theme that’s come out of this work so far is that it behooves managers to really listen to their employees, especially if they themselves have not walked in their shoes. There are all kinds of crises going on now. So maybe it’s suffering from some aspect of the economic downturn, maybe it’s the spouse has lost a job, maybe they’ve lost a loved one to this pandemic. Whatever it is. People are going through different forms of pain right now, but the best managers are those that are able to acknowledge that, give space so that employees feel comfortable talking about it, and figuring out ways to accommodate and support what their employees need. We are all living through a very traumatic experience.
I think we sometimes forget because we keep just plugging away at the day to day, and we’ve got our goals, and we’ve got our lists. And it’s like, we forget this is a very unique time period. So I think first of all, just really remembering to have some self-compassion and give ourselves the grace to realize we are going to fly off the handle, we are going to have off days and that’s okay. And it’s just a matter of learning from it, trying to reflect on maybe what may have caused it, and trying to do better the next day. We’ve got to pay attention to those changes, whether it’s physical, or behavioral, or feelings.
We have no doubt there’s the mental health crisis brewing that we are not paying enough attention to. So we’ve got to just listen to those changes, pay attention to those changes, recognize when we need to maybe cut back, or say no, or make changes to how we go about our lives every day. So maybe that means saying no to some new project, which we’re bummed about because we want to take advantage of every opportunity, but really we can only handle so much at this time.
Maybe that means prioritizing self-care more than we usually do. And for managers, that means helping your employees to do that. Because maybe they don’t recognize for themselves why they are not performing as they once did or why they’re not able to manage their schedules with the efficiency that they were once able to. And so we don’t always recognize for ourselves what kind of compassion we need to offer to ourselves. So for managers, it’s like, hey, recognize when your folks are burnt out, recognize when your folks may need help, ask them how they’re doing.
We all need to be checking in on each other these days, personally, professionally, everywhere in between. Because it’s all intertwined now. There’s no separation anymore. We’re working from home. Our family is home. Home is work, work is… It’s all intertwined. So we cannot hope to separate that. And I know there are many managers who are uncomfortable with that.
For many managers, they don’t want to get into the personal stuff. They just want to stick to business. That’s behind us. That is no longer an option. We have to get personal. We have to understand where each other are coming from. So at least check in on your employees, ask them how they’re doing, ask if there’s anything you can do to help support them. Maybe there’s nothing you can do, but at least the act of asking will signal to them that you care. And that can go a long way these days.
Welcome to Allowed. This is your host, Caneel Joyce. I am speaking with you today during the week that my children are finally out of the house and actually attending their normal daycare, which is a place where there are several children in our neighborhood, including siblings and they’ve come together, and the teachers there are guiding them through literally nine different individual classrooms, virtual distance learning programs with their regular public school.
So basically, they’re out of the house. They’re still doing distance education, but I can tell you, I feel like a different human being this week. So I’m really feeling quite spacious and free, which is different from how I felt at many of the lower points over the last few months. So whether your kids are going back to school now, or you’re doing homeschool or virtual education my thoughts are with you, good luck with whatever it is. I hope it’s working out well for you. So today we’re speaking about a topic that has great relevance for any manager in the workforce.
It also has great relevance for you if this particular situation applies to you. And I’ll describe it. So broadly, I’m always curious about what can we, as conscious leaders, learn about how we can better manage, and lead, and influence, and support our teams, our colleagues, and how can we best lead, especially through crises or change such as COVID. Now, in particular today, we will be focusing on one of the most valuable and essential segments of the workforce. In particular, a lot of these individuals also happen to be leaders.
So this may apply to you. You may be one of those who is needing to be better understood, better supported, or you may be not part of this demographic segment and yet it’s very, very important that we better understand what they’re going through right now, and that we can move into a place of greater awareness so that we can make conscious choices as leaders, and we can make choices about how we might adapt our approach to be more in service of that to which we are most deeply committed, whatever your values are.
So this is a lever for you really would like to encourage you to listen in at least about 20 minutes, even if you are not in this demographic segment, because it is just so critically important. And from there, you make a choice. In any social system, there are power dynamics. This is the nature of social organization. There are many different forms of power. So I can have, from a psychological power, the more I understand you, the more influence and power I can have. But then there are also other forms of power. And there’s probably at least 10 of these forms.
We can talk about that in another episode. But there are some forms of power that do seem to happen to me. And as you know, in conscious leadership, we’re really interested in, when am I in a below the line kind of this is happening to me mindset, which we might call victim consciousness, or when am I above the line and I am experiencing myself as powerful, I’m in a state of trust, I’m in a state of ease and flow? And that things are actually happening more by me or through me, I’m creating my own reality. That’s all true about me. I may be in the drama triangle below the line.
I may be in the empowerment triangle above the line. I may be leading more consciously. However, as an individual, I am embedded in a social system where there are other powers dynamics at play, such as who systematically has greater access to resources, who systematically is more prone to be challenged by scarcity, by access to choice and freedom, who has a greater ability to create what they want simply by virtue of what they have access to and how much freedom of choice they have.
Then there’s also this deeper element of what has society and the social system around me, whether it’s my organization, my family, or society at large, and the culture that I’m in, what has it taught me about me and how powerful I am. And we might think of this as we have internalized what society is telling us about how powerful we are. So there’s internalized systems of oppression, and there are internalized systems of being the 1% who is not one of the oppressed.
And traditionally, we would say this is, well, I’m not even going to name it. It’s, you know who they are. And you know who we are. I am part of that group in many ways, and in other ways I am not. And I think that probably applies to almost all of us. I want to draw attention to this because it’s really easy to use the trauma triangle against each other and weaponize it, in particular when we’re talking about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And this group we’re speaking about today, and I haven’t told you who they are yet, is one that is very seldom recognized actually as an oppressed group.
However, I think there’s a lot of evidence that especially in this COVID era, with the shutdown of schools, they are an oppressed group. They are a misunderstood group. They are a group that is more prone to be suffering right now by no fault of their own, and they do have responsibility because they’re the only ones who can be in their own mindset. However, collectively as a society and as leaders in particular, I really believe that we have a shared responsibility to better understand what this group is going through, and to understand what can I do to challenge the system, to create the change I want, and to stand for reformations and acceptance and empathy, and how can we reorganize ourselves in a way that is creative and from above the line lead the kind of change we want. So here’s the big reveal. This group is working parents.
Now, whether you are a parent or you’re not a parent, this is extremely relevant to you. And you may not even know how much you do not understand if you’re not a parent. And even if you are a parent, there are so many different experiences happening right now. Everybody’s situation is different. So it would be a spiritual bypass to say that being a conscious leader means we need to accept everything just as it is. We need to be happy about every circumstance just as it is. In fact, we can feel tremendous heartbreak and sadness from above the line.
We can feel anger from above the line. I know that those are two emotions that for me, when I really drop into what this group is going through as a whole collectively, and I would put myself in the lucky camp of this group, very lucky camp, I’ve got healthy kids, I’m well supported, I have a husband at home, there’s so much I have going for me here. However, it’s still really hard as I’ve shared with you before. So we’re not going to do a spiritual bypass here today.
We’re going to say, “Okay, I’m willing today to open my eyes and to learn more about what’s actually going on here.” Our guest today is Dr. Dana Sumpter. Dana Sumpter is a PhD. She is an associate professor of organizational theory and management at the Pepperdine University, I’m going to see if I can not butcher this name, Graziadio School of Business, where she teaches courses in cross-cultural management, inclusive management, and leadership, and a lot of really interesting research. Her newest project is one that I actually found out about because I was invited to be a participant in it, a person that she was studying.
So I want to bring us back. Okay. So we’re going to be talking here about some stories. We’re going to be talking about what parents and in particular her focus is on working mothers, which have a different set of circumstances, and again, level of oppression or access to resources or being understood than typically fathers or male partners might have. I would say this also broadly applies to parents. And she has some very specific tactical recommendations for what we as leaders can do.
And we’ll get to that in the second half of the episode. Our 100% responsibility as conscious leaders is to choose the path of awareness and personal choice. I am going to be aware of what’s going on out there. And I’m always curious about what can I create that is in line with what I most deeply stand for, my deepest commitments. So hopefully today will be very inspiring for you. And if you are a working mom like me, give you a little sense of, “Hey baby, you’re not alone.” Dana, welcome onto the show. Thank you so much for being here today.
Thank you, Caneel. I really appreciate that. I’m grateful for your kind words. And it’s been such a joy to interview all of the women that I’ve spoken with for this study, which today, after this, I’ll be interviewing the 51st working mom. And yeah, starting our conversation, it was great to connect on a lot of similar themes, similar feelings and reactions, challenges and opportunities during this challenging time. So yeah, I loved hearing your stories and hearing your voice about this. And your experiences have just added to the chorus of so many working women and what we’ve been going through during this time. So that’s a part of the goal of this research has been to lift those voices up, make these voices heard, and try to capture some of the themes and patterns of ways that we are handling this crisis, what we can learn from it, and how we can proactively move forward.
So, Dana, I’d love if you would share with our listeners a little bit about your background, maybe some of the professional, as well as a bit of the personal, to help us get to know you better and understand who’s behind this study that you’re doing.
As you mentioned, I’m now a professor, but I have some former lives, if you will. I used to work in human resources. So I had kind of a corporate professional background. And that was back before I had kids myself. I remember having coworkers or people who worked for me that had kids and thinking like, “Wow.” As this kind of single, independent, working woman living and working in New York, and I was an expatriate overseas, I had so much freedom, so much flexibility. I had no idea how challenging it was to be a working parent. And I would see my coworkers who had to leave early to take their kid to soccer practice, or who had to take a day off because their kid was sick, and thank like, “Oh, it’s really interferes with your career when you’ve got these types of complications in your life.”
And I didn’t really understand what it was all about. So fast forward, I quit my corporate job, went back to get my PhD, just very intellectually curious, and wound up a professor out here on the West Coast in Southern California. And then I became a mom while I was tenure track, which is very competitive and very stressful. And so I had two kids, actually, while I was tenure track.
They are four and six now. They are the light of my life. But I still go through the daily challenges of how do I balance everything? How do I accomplish everything I want to accomplish? How do I try to succeed in all these different roles in my life? And also my identity. Am I a mother? Am I a professor? Am I a scholar? Like, I’m all these different things.
And so I think many of us that have these different roles grapple with that all day long. And that’s just really comes to the forefront during this pandemic, when so many of our resources have been taken away or just removed for a period of time when our freedoms, our outlets, have been taken away. And so we all are really struggling with this, not only the changes in our identity, but also the complete intensification of our responsibilities.
So that’s a part of what motivated the study that you referenced earlier. And a little bit more about my background is that, I’m a Chicago native, I’m from the Midwest. I’m very outdoorsy, I love doing things in nature. I’ve also been inspired in my scholarship to study wellbeing at work, stress, energy, mindfulness, power, and empowerment. So all these different ways that people can behave at work to not only effectuate their work experience, but make it better for the others around them as well. So that is the lens that I have taken in studying the effects of what happens to women at work during this pandemic and how they can better approach the choices they make with their work and family balancing and their choices there.
Academia is a very interesting place to look at first in terms of how does being a parent impact one’s career and how is that different if you happen to be identifying as a woman versus identifying as a man. And I’m thinking in particular of Mary Ann Mason’s study coming out of Berkeley. As you may have read about several years ago, Mary Ann Mason looked at academia and she found that for people who are fathers on the tenure track, it makes you more likely to get tenure.
There are way fewer mothers on the tenure track than there are fathers to begin with. And then of those who are mothers, you are much less likely to earn tenure if you are a mother. She also cites the research around the time famine and how in households women tend to take on the second shift and are doing a lot more of this nitty gritty kind of invisible work.
I think for myself, this is stuff like I manage all of our family passwords, and I do the filing, and I sign up the kids for their medical appointments, I know when they’re supposed to be, and like all that mental energy. So there’s this really big difference in how it has been to be a mother than a father, to begin with. Now, what did you find in your study? What’s happened since COVID? Has it improved? Where are we with that?
Yeah. Great question. And yeah, the work that comes to mind in addition to Mason’s work is Arlie Hochschild’s in her book is called The Second Shift and looking at exactly as you described that invisible labor. Not only is it unpaid, it tends to be under-recognized because to those that are proximate to all that work it’s just done, it’s just taken care of.
There’s no recognition or appreciation for the cognitive work and also the physical and time-based work that goes into it to being a house manager. Many women in our dataset commented on that. That they have this role of house manager. And what happened during the pandemic is that typically intensified because not only are you doing the normal day to day logistics of who has to be where, what’s on our family schedule, is the fridge stocked with what we need, are the kids’ lunches packed, are the doctor’s appointments on the schedule, and so on.
It also became, we all have to become armchair epidemiologists and figure out where can we get our groceries from now that our typical supply chain is disrupted? What are the times that we can go? Who can come with? Do we have enough masks available next to the front door? Are things opening or closing? And what are the city, and county, and state level health agencies saying in terms of day to day life choices?
There’s all this intensification of decision making that needs to happen that not only does the mom tend to take the brunt of that work, but there can also be differences of opinion between partners in the household. If mom and dad feel differently about what the choices should be, can our child go on this play date, should we send our child back to preschool, which choice are we going to make in sending our kid back to elementary school face to face versus virtual?
That makes that role that much more difficult. So it definitely a pattern of seeing the house manager role becoming more difficult, more cognitively intense, more stressful because the stakes are so much higher because you’re not only making decisions based on normal day to day life. And you’re making decisions that may have implications for health and safety for yourself, your family, and your community. So a lot more stress associated with that role, even more than usual.
Did you experience that yourself?
Oh, totally. It’s funny. Caneel, as you were talking about the house manager role and you needed to remember passwords and all that, I was thinking, “Yeah, this morning, I left the house early before the kids woke up so I could work in my office all day, all night.” And I was texting with my husband as I arrived in my office here, “Remember, JJ doesn’t need lunch today because he has pizza for the last day at preschool. And remember, Daisy’s swimsuit is on the office bed, and…” Just all these reminders. I have to organize all that stuff because I know if I don’t do it, he’s probably going to drop one or more of the balls. So it’s like…
That’s such a challenge.
All little things. And a part of this also is my husband’s job and the nature of his job. And again, that’s something that we found plays a big role in the decisions our participants have made in their work-life choices. So if the husband’s job entails a lot of Zoom meetings where maybe he can’t be interrupted, then he may need the office where the door is locked or where it’s easier to keep the kids out. And then mom’s job maybe ends up suffering a little bit because she’s working at the dining room table with the kids while they’re doing homeschooling, or she’s on her laptop where trying to feed the kids from a different room and constantly is interrupted.
So that’s a theme that kind of plays what you described with gender roles, that there are a lot of things that factor into this, and we’re still unpacking that from the data. But because the kids tend to want mom before wanting dad, that means mom’s job gets interrupted, mom’s job gets deprioritized. So that I’m sure is playing a role in impacting women’s, not only job opportunities and commitment now, but their career opportunities going forward.
Because if it’s women’s jobs that are being just shipped away by these interruptions in daily life, that over time can limit their opportunities. And a part of what you alluded to also before with gender is the expectations of others. What scholars have found, what a stream of research has found is that when women bring their life into the workplace, they are seen differently in a negative way. Meaning, they kind of… like Amy Cuddy’s work has found this too.
That they get labeled as the working mom instead of the worker or the employee. And they’re perceived as less competent, or they’re perceived as a source of warmth, not necessarily a source of competence and expertise, whereas for men, when their life bridges into their work world, when they have the kid who climbs on their lap during a Zoom call it’s, “Oh, isn’t that cute? Isn’t he a great dad?” And his recognition, competence, perceptions of his quality and all that does not get diminished. So that has only been exacerbated during this time when our work domain and home domain have been necessarily integrated. We can’t separate the stuff anymore because we’re working from home, our kids very likely are going to be in and out, are going to be a part of the picture, a part of the Zoom call and so on.
And so the point is that it has different implications for the perceptions of the capabilities of members as women. So I know I’ve tried very much to make that integration a part of it and to not shy away when my kid comes in, and my four year old will literally climb on top of me sometimes. I’m like the human jungle gym. And he’ll climb on my shoulders while I’m doing something.
And I try to carry with it and laugh it off and just not really shy away from it. Because that’s life. That’s the reality right now. And some great women that I’ve spoken with who are in leadership positions also get that and set the standard for that, really, act as role models in terms of having forgiveness and empathy and understanding when that happens. Where I’ve heard a lot of challenges from my participants that not only limits their ability to do their jobs well, but also I think inhibits their commitments, and perhaps future tenure with their employer, is when they don’t get that understanding.
If for example, they have… I just spoke with a woman earlier this week who is a manager who does not have kids. And she felt like they just did not understand where she was coming from. And that she could not… she had to work so hard to mask, to hide, that aspect of her identity. And that not only made her feel like she couldn’t be her full self to her employer, that she had to hide what she was going through at home from her manager.
She had a 12 year old son who needed help with school. And she was like, “I always had to make sure it wasn’t a part of the Zoom calls I was on because I didn’t want to be judged if I was looked at as having to help my son while I was doing my job.” That’s stressful. Not only is that stressful, that entails cognitive load, meaning I have less of my cognitive resources to devote to my job because I have to hide this part of myself as I engage in my work virtually.
So yeah, really a theme that’s come out of this work so far is that it behooves managers to really listen to their employees, especially if they themselves have not walked in their shoes. Not only for working moms and working parents, but just more generally. There are all kinds of crises going on now. So maybe it’s suffering from some aspect of the economic downturn, maybe it’s the spouse has lost a job, maybe they’ve lost a loved one to this pandemic, whatever it is. People are going through different forms of pain right now. So the best managers are those that are able to acknowledge that, give space so that employees feel comfortable talking about it, and figuring out ways to accommodate and support what their employees need.
You’re talking a lot here about the cognitive load. And I can imagine when my brain is full, is overflowing, and I feel like I don’t have any working memory left, and then in comes another interruption. The cognitive load is like I’ve already maxed out. But then also what kicks in for me are a bunch of stories around how unfair it is. And I find that’s when I go really below the line. And that’s when I’ve noticed I’ve been really starting to see myself as a victim of the system, and I get angry, and I’m frustrated, and then I’m also trying to hold space and support everyone around me, including my clients.
And I’m in a client-facing business. So I’m not supposed to have any interruptions or distractions. My commitment is not to have interruptions or distractions. However, they still happen. So I think that’s a piece that it shows up, I’m sure, on my face. And it shows up in my mental health, and in my emotional resilience, and my patience level.
And I do my self care, and I do my meditation, and I do my morning exercise, and I do my sleep and my water, and… I work so hard to stay as resilient and patient as possible, but yet the reality of this situation, and then when I think about how many people are going through this is, the person that sometimes you might get from me, if you’re a collaborator of mine or if I had a manager or my clients, it’s a different quality of person.
And I bring that up because for managers, one of the things I’ve been hearing from my clients is it’s really, really hard right now to know what’s a performance issue and what’s a factor of it being COVID right now. What’s an attitude issue or a morale issue, and what’s a factor of just being a parent that have kids at home. And I’m wondering, is there any advice that you can give to either employees or managers about how to manage that? Because I think for myself, I don’t even know. I don’t know if it’s a performance issue or a COVID issue for myself.
Definitely. Yeah. I definitely have some thoughts from both the employee perspective, the individual perspective, and also for managers and leaders to pay attention to. You’ve really captured, I think, a very common experience and I just am flying off the handle these days. I am snapping at my husband and I never used to use that tone with them, or I just cannot concentrate at work. I’ve got a couple hours to work and I just can’t make it happen.
I don’t have the creativity I once had. I don’t have the focus I once had. We are all living through a very traumatic experience. I think we sometimes forget because we keep just plugging away at the day to day. And we’ve got our goals, and we’ve got our lists, and it’s like, we forget this is a very unique time period. So I think first of all, just really remembering to have some self-compassion and give ourselves the grace to realize we are going to fly off the handle, we are going to have off days, and that’s okay. And it’s just a matter of learning from it, trying to reflect on maybe what may have caused it and trying to do better the next day. What you described in the experience of snapping at someone, we’ve got to pay attention to those changes.
Whether it’s physical, or behavioral, or feelings, we have no doubt there’s the mental health crisis brewing that we are not paying enough attention to. So many of the women that we spoke with, I would say the vast majority of our participants described effects of sleep deprivation, emotional instability, anxiety, depression, even. And just little things like you mentioned. Like acting in ways that… like, this isn’t me. I don’t normally snap at my kids like this. But that’s what happens. We are reacting to the situation, to the stress, to the very long-term kind of anxiety that we’re going through with all this.
So we’ve got to just listen to those changes, pay attention to those changes, recognize when we need to, maybe, cut back or say no, or make changes to how we go about our lives every day. So maybe that means saying no to some new project, which we’re bummed about because we want to take advantage of every opportunity, but really we can only handle so much at this time. Maybe that means prioritizing self care more than we usually do. We working moms tend to be really bad at that. We’re always last on the list in terms of whose needs are taken care of.
So we have to get better at that. It’s that famous analogy of, if you’re in an airplane, put your own oxygen mask on first, because then you have the capacity to be able to take care of everyone around you. And for managers, that means helping your employees to do that. Because maybe they don’t recognize for themselves why they are not performing as they once did or why they’re not able to manage their schedules with the efficiency that they were once able to.
And so we don’t always recognize for ourselves what kind of compassion we need to offer to ourselves. So for managers, it’s like, “Hey, recognize when your folks are burnt out, recognize when your folks may need help, ask them how they’re doing.” I’ve had a participant say, “My manager has never, once since this pandemic started asked me how I’m doing.” And that floored me when I heard that. We all need to be checking in on each other these days, personally, professionally, everywhere in between. Because it’s all intertwined now. There’s no separation anymore. We’re working from home, our family is home, home is work, work is… It’s all intertwined. So we cannot hope to separate that.
And I know there are many managers who are uncomfortable with that. It’s not all of our… Back when I managed people… I’m a very open person when I teach my MBA courses. The first class I tell them about myself, my background, my history. I’m just open like that. But I know that’s not everyone’s jam. That’s not everyone’s comfort level. And so for many managers, they don’t want to get into the personal stuff. They just want to stick to business. That’s behind us. That is no longer an option. We have to get personal. We have to understand where each other are coming from because we all are going through some form of pain or trauma these days. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that.
I genuinely believe that. So managers have to at least acknowledge and at least pretend like they care about their employees’ wellbeing, even if they really don’t. I hope most managers do. But let’s be honest, some just don’t. So at least, check in on your employees, ask them how they’re doing, ask if there’s anything you can do to help support them. Maybe there’s nothing you can do, but at least the act of asking will signal to them that you care. And that can go a long way these days.
So that’s a part of it. And then, your comments also, Caneel, remind me of the literature, the research on work family scholarship that has explored the spillover you were alluding to that what happens to us at work, we bring that home with us, what happens to us at home, we bring that to work with us. And so that was always true. And it’s especially true now when work is home and home is work. So many of us are working from home. The days we can’t escape to our offices.
So that is something that managers need to reckon with and acknowledge that you have to, to some extent, be aware of your employees’ personal lives. And I tell you this time period right now, it’s school is starting. So for parents with school aged kids, this is a very pivotal time, a very stressful time. And managers of working parents, if they haven’t talked to you about this, be assured that this is on their minds because whether kids are physically going to school or are engaging in distance learning, all of that is up in the air and subject to change at any given moment.
And even if there’s a good plan in place, all it takes is one illness or one symptom for that to be totally disrupted. So I can say this, my daughter starts first grade next week, my son’s in a preschool and it’s like any day now I expect to hear, “Oh, everyone’s got to be home for two weeks.”
Oh, completely. That’s a really important element to underscore is if you have any employees or teammates, colleagues, anyone you work with at all, clients, a person for whom you are a client, it would be kind and generous, and actually now I want to make it part of your 100% responsibility here is inquiring how are you, how’s homeschool going, what are your plans for that? Maybe even, I want to support you in however your family has figured out to do homeschool.
If you’d like to tell me about kind of how you guys are sharing responsibility and as that evolves, that might be an interesting piece of dialogue because if you don’t know who’s got that ball, you might not really understand how things are shaking out. And I think it’s probably a good guess that it often is the mom, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes there’s a single parent situation, or they’re sharing custody, and that’s extremely complicated, or maybe there’s a grandparent helping out, where we have to be super careful of their health.
And I know that we explored doing learning pods with some neighbors outside. We couldn’t find a teacher to save our lives. It’s very competitive right now. So every parent right now, like you said, they’re in whatever version of virtual education there is, perhaps they have a daycare open, but like you’re pointing out, the second there’s one symptom, they very well might shut it down. So all of us have probably also created big time contingency plans. So we have planned out two years of school simultaneously and are watching for signs every day of how things are going to change.
So that’s a lot too. I don’t want to paint it like we are victims. I think it’s more, there’s so much opportunity right now in better understanding what it’s like to be a parent so that we can leverage parents in the workplace who are a big portion of the workplace. I think parents are fantastic employees. And I just want to highlight that, the opportunity of this for managers.
Yes. And two important points here to build off of that. One, that employers had better realized that their employees are paying attention to how they are responding to this crisis. Almost every single woman we’ve spoken with, and other people that I just know in my life, have talked about leveraging this period of time as a pivot, as a point in time to reevaluate what they’re going to do with their career, what their next move is going to be.
And if they have a manager who has not supported them during this time, or if they have a company that is really not family friendly, or if they have a company that espouses themselves as family friendly but really they’re not, they’ve got all these great supportive policies, but no one uses them because they know they’ll get dinged or they’ll get a bad reputation if they do, that crap cannot last. The employees are paying attention. Employees are going to remember.
And just as we learned from the last economic downturn, after the ’08 economic crisis, when the recovery started, there was a lot of labor mobility. Because once unemployment came down a little bit, there were more job opportunities, people started moving. Because the folks that worked at places that they didn’t like, or it wasn’t a good fit for whatever reason, they had the freedom, they had the ability to go elsewhere. So I have every reason to think that that’s going to happen again.
And it is happening now, even. Because even though there’s high unemployment right now, there are a lot of winners and losers in this thing. Certain industries, certain occupations are thriving, and are doing better than they ever have. And sadly, others are going in the opposite direction. But what that means is, there are job opportunities out there, especially for the most talented people. Employers that do not support their working parents employees, this is a community of people that bring very unique and valued skills to the workplace, then they’re going to lose them.
And they’re probably going to lose out on the most talented folks that they want to keep the most. They’re going to lose them, their competitors, or to other industries. So that’s one point is to remember, folks are paying attention these days. So be very mindful of the choices that you’re making, the policies that you’re constructing, how those policies are being enacted and supported, and how leaders are championing those policies and walking the talk.
Another thing that comes to mind is something that you can do. Managers may be thinking, “Well, what could I do? What can I do to better support my working parents employees? Okay. I’m in, I buy it. But what do I do?” So you mentioned one great technique and that’s the check-in right. Just offering the space for employees to be able to express their needs, connect with their managers, let them know how they may need support, because everyone is different.
But another thing that managers can do is be aware of the flexible work arrangements that they have. Research for years has noted this, that the more flexible work options you can give employees, the better. But what come out in these recent months during the pandemic is that this notion of flexibility is actually quite complex. Meaning, it’s great to have flexible work options, but you also want to realize that with flexibility can come other challenges.
As we’re experiencing, for example, with this lack of ability to separate or segment work from home. I’ve had several participants say something along the lines of, “Well, I used to go to work and then come home. And I would work when I was at work. And when I could come home, I could be with my kids. I could cook dinner, I could do…” So there was that separation, which is healthy. Because it allows you to restore from one domain of your life to recharge for the next day when you go into work. But now we don’t have that separation as much. And especially as working parents are having to typically work in chunks or in spurts during the day because they get those interruptions because they have to take the breaks to do things for their kids all around the house.
Then that means that they may wake up early in the morning to get work done. They may stay up later at night so that after the kids go to bed, that’s when they can have uninterrupted work stretches. So that leads to less sleep. That leads to burnout. That leads to the feeling hanging over your head of, I can never quite sign out of work. So that’s not healthy and that’s not sustainable. So that’s on employees to figure out their own schedules and their own restraints, and being able to sign off and call it a day.
But that also means managers need to be aware of that and can help accommodate that and realize that their employees may have odd work hours or maybe they need to help encourage their employees to sign off at a certain time for their own wellbeing. A part of flexibility also is that the flexibility can run out. It’s almost like we’ve seen empathy run out too. Many participants say, “My employer, my coworkers, my clients, they were super supportive at first when the pandemic struck and everyone was home, everyone realized it was a crisis. It’s like, oh, what do you need? Oh, your kid’s interrupted.
Oh, that’s so cute. No problem. We’re family friendly here.” But that lasted a month or two, but now, especially folks that don’t have kids and don’t realize that this is continuing, this isn’t going away, the empathy has kind of run out. So there’s less tolerance, less forgiveness for the interruptions, for the need for flexibility. I’ve heard of some employers who are trying to encourage their employees to go back to the workplace for one or more reasons that may not be possible or that may not be helpful for them, because maybe their kids are still home or maybe they do have health concerns and they don’t want to come back physically to work yet. And so the word for employers I would say is, keep up the flexibility as an option for as long as possible, if not indefinitely.
We’re seeing bigger employers do it. Many tech industry giants are saying, “Hey, we’re working from home through summer 2021 TBD, maybe even after that.” And so keeping up the flexibility as an option for as long as possible would be really helpful, very strongly recommended. And that’s the say, again, don’t assume that your employees want to work from home, ask them what they would prefer.
Because a couple of folks I’ve spoken with do want to go back into the office. They’re dying to come back. So it’s everyone… it’s not one size fits all. Everyone is different. And as much as it’s easier as a manager to have a one size fits all approach, that may be easier for you, but that’s not going to be as effective for your people. So recognize that everyone’s situations are different and it may take some one-on-one checking in, consultation, coaching to help your folks realize what they need and to know how you can best accommodate them.
And the final point with flexibility is that, I mentioned this phrase before, you have to walk the talk because employees will follow your lead. So if there is… Like as an example, I had one participant, she worked in fashion retail, and she said, “We had this policy where there weren’t going to be meetings scheduled between 11:00 and 1:00. And that was to help support working parents, that was to help to support employees taking breaks, having lunch and so on so people didn’t get Zoom fatigue.”
But she said, “But me and the other kind of high level executives, we didn’t take those breaks. We knew we couldn’t.” And it’s like, “Look at that.” [inaudible] those breaks, people underneath you were going to feel the pressure to not take those breaks as well, because you set the culture. You set the standards for behavior when you’re in some kind of leadership role. So the best thing you could do is follow those either informal or formal policies yourself, be very vocal about it, and encourage your folks to do that as well, because otherwise they very well may not feel comfortable doing so.
That’s such an opportunity. I can imagine if I did not have children and I’m an executive, I’m running a company, and I’m feeling like I really can’t take that break while I’m giving it to my employees. What a great opportunity for you to sit and feel your feelings! How anxious do you feel not getting stuff done during that lunchtime hour? How anxious do you feel not getting ahead, not making that extra call to a customer?
That’s how parents feel at the same time, simultaneously, as they’re trying to pour as much love into their kids as possible so that they won’t get interrupted for the rest of the day as well. Plus, we love our children and it’s so heartbreaking to see how dejected the kids can get some days. And yet they’ve learned, my kids have learned, that they only interrupt me when they’re desperate. So then a lot of little needs are going unmet. But-
Yeah. And they’re feeling the stress and anxiety of these days as well. My four year old, he started biting his fingernails down to the numb. And I remember noticing it one day, and then I noticed it again the next day, and then I got really alarmed. I was like, “What is this? This is some manifestation, that behavior, anxiety I’ve never seen before.”
And I was just like, that threw me for a tailspin, like, “All right, I have to figure something out. I have to make a change. I have to make sure we do more special things with him, pay more attention to him.” Because he was kind of getting lost in the shuffle as my husband was working from home, I was working from home, our daughter was homeschooling kindergarten and he was just like left in the wilderness.
So yeah, we have to pay attention to those signals. And again, for managers realizing that your employees who are working parents have these emotional needs for their kids. But also, I think it can be assumed that that kind of consumes them. And, oh, well, this is something that could happen also. Especially with moms there’s this form of what’s called benevolent sexism. She’s a working mom, she’s got the kids, she probably won’t want to take on that project or she won’t want to start working with that client.
Or what I’ve heard a lot, I can’t give her feedback right now.
I can’t give her any performance feedback. So then they’re not growing, and then eventually they become a performance issue. When you, as the manager, have been treating her like a victim.
Yes, exactly. So the point is, let them have the right of refusal, let your working mom tell you if she can or cannot take on that client. Let her tell you if she does or does not want to take advantage of that opportunity. Because maybe she is fine. Maybe she can take it on. Maybe she can’t and she’ll say no. But give her that right of refusal. A big part of this is, again, it’s assumed that when we’re with kids, all we’re thinking about is the kids. That’s true. There’s always a sliver of our mind that can never let go of the cries we’re hearing from the other room or the demands for a snack that we have to deal with on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean we’re any less committed to our jobs.
And it definitely doesn’t mean I want to jump up every single time I hear them.
I’m actually excited to get to do my work.
Oh my gosh! I was so thrilled when I got in my car this morning to go to the office. I was like, “I have full day of work. Yes. This is awesome.” And every moment that we spend doing our jobs, we are reclaiming that part of our identity. We’re so grateful for it and we want to give it every ounce of ourselves that we have to offer. So, yeah. So I think, again, it’s these assumptions that are really rooted in these stereotypes about women that can limit us. And so it’s, help work with us to accommodate us when we need support, but do not assume that we are any less committed or capable because it’s probably quite the opposite.
Yes. Okay. I think you just pointed to one of the critical tensions here. So there’s, we don’t want to be ignorant about the needs of parents. We don’t want to undervalue how important network is, and we don’t want to not be supportive on the one hand. On the other hand, we don’t want to see parents as victims. We don’t want to see parents as incompetent.
We don’t want to give them allowances that ultimately, we didn’t really have a whole body, yes for giving them to begin with, and then we ended up presenting them or not giving them feedback or whatever. So how do we make sure that we are supporting our parents while simultaneously not disempowering them? And I think it’s what you’re pointing to, which is, we have to realize every situation is different and every situation changes on a week by week basis. And so it’s about creating open space for open, safe communication.
Yes. The manager managing relationship is special, and there’s nobility in that relationship. There is a lot of responsibility associated with the role of being a manager, because when you’re a people manager, you are affecting people’s lives. You’re not just affecting their jobs. It’s who they are as a person, it’s what they’re able to bring home to support themselves and their family. These are huge decisions that you make that impact the entirety of people’s lives. So no pressure, guys, but make sure you get it right. And that’s why it’s like, it’s a stressful role, but it’s also what tremendous oppotunity you have to really be positive.
I’ve been so blessed I’ve had wonderful managers, back when I used to have managers, that were role models, that supported me, that that treated me with dignity and respect. And so that type of management is needed now more than ever, because of what everyone is going through. A quick side note of this is job security and the importance of knowing where you stand, because not only are we dealing with the pandemic, we’re dealing with the worst economic crisis that many of us have seen in our lifetimes. And so this is a time when people are scared. People are scared for their jobs, especially again, if they’re in certain industries or if they are early in tenure.
And I interviewed quite a few people who have been in their jobs in one year or less, and they just bent over backwards and were jumping through hoops to try to demonstrate productivity and commitment while they were working remotely, which can be hard to do. And that almost always was associated with more stress, more burnout, because they felt the need to be on call. I had one participant who physically went back to the office sooner than she was comfortable with, but she felt like she had to, in response to the first wave of employees who had gone back into the offices because she had only been in her job for less than a year. And she ended up contracting COVID from… And she has a young child.
And she looked back and thought, “I really didn’t feel pressure externally, it was pressure I put on myself because I had the high expectations for myself and I felt the need to demonstrate that I was this committed employee, and look what happened as a result.” And so, yeah, again, a manager has to realize the extent to which you can communicate with your employees, not only on where they stand in terms of great, example, like giving feedback, which is so important for anyone’s development personally and professionally, but any information on their job security, information on how they as a company are responding to the pandemic, safety measures, security measures, all of that is so important, better to over communicate than under communicate.
I had one participant share that she hadn’t heard a word from her manager about what they were going to do in terms of safety, and security, and health precautions when they did return to the workplace. And they also were giving them just one week windows of guarantee that they weren’t going to be required to come back into the office. They could only plan one week in advance and it’s like-
Wow! So you’re looking for childcare constantly and having to tell every single person you find, no, you can’t have the job. And you burn out through the entire labor market of childcare around you. Oh, that sounds fun.
That’s the implication you’re looking at as an employer. If you have those types of approaches to your workforce, you’re going to lose out on a significant part of the talent pool if you are turning off working parents because of your practices. So it’s really like as if it wasn’t enough of an argument to say, “Hey, this is the right thing to do for people ethically.” It’s also like you’re doing yourself a disservice because you’re losing out on a significant portion of available talent if you are not going to be supportive of working parents during this time, completely.
Also a parent taskforce, that’s something I’ve seen a lot of my clients put together, which I feel like is really, really useful in particular, if you don’t have a lot of parents in the C-suite. And you can have some non-parents on that task force as well. Because I think the dialogue that happens in that room helps to spread empathy and understanding of what everyone’s going through. Because non-parents don’t have it easy right now either.
And they have their own unique set of challenges. I’m grateful for being a parent right now, as challenging as it is. So what parents need is they need time, they need understanding, they need flexibility, they need to know it’s safe to share what they need and that it’s okay for things to change, and they just need to be tuned into. So it’s not just, you can’t throw a check at this problem, unfortunately.
Absolutely. Because, I know of families who have all the economic resources in the world but they don’t have the time, or they don’t… that’s the thing. There are different forms of resources that we’re talking about here. And you mentioned of the support groups or the work groups, that’s another great action that managers can think about supporting, or that individuals can think about forming. Back when I worked at Citigroup, we had employee resource groups for different demographic groups.
And interestingly enough, I’ve heard one participant say something that was really compelling. She said, “Working parents should be like a protected class. Working parents are a demographic group.” So if you think about the ways that you provide support and accommodations for groups of employees who have disabilities, or groups of employees who are of a certain racial group, or of a certain gender, it’s like that could be attributed to working parents as well. With community comes power, and comes voice. And so when working parents are able to band together and form some kind of employee resource group or support group, then they have a better chance of being able to elevate their voice and make their needs heard. It does have to do with, I think, being proactive and being willing to make changes.
And what’s really great about this time period when we’ve all gone through such upheaval is that, it can be very ripe for change and creatively thinking about how do we want to shape what we look like going forward? The employee-employer contract or relationship is evolving. How we individuals approach our jobs and how we feel about our jobs, how we do our jobs is evolving.
There’s so much change in the air. So that’s the thing. Let’s capitalize on that. I had one mom who said she had three school aged kids and she talked about how her days before COVID were just spent driving our kids back and forth, to practices, to recitals, to these activities, and she said, “I will never go back to doing that again.” She said, “I want to get a chance to pause and be home and just be for a while and spend time together as a family.”
She was like, “We’ve never done that before. We were always busy with practices and games and stuff.” So she’s like, “Well, I committed to myself we’re never doing that again. I’m not going back to that. We’re going to have better boundaries. We’re going to have more time for breaks and such.” And so that was a really cool example. And then, to professionally also, so many women we spoke with are reevaluating their careers, what they want to do with themselves, whether or not they want to continue being with their current organizations or in their current roles.
Some have been inspired to take their careers in different ways and to capitalize on different types of opportunities. Really, a lot of self-exploration is going on right now. So it’s very inspiring, but it also hopefully is a bit of a wake-up call for managers realizing like, “Hey, our employees may be thinking about other directions if you’re not really supporting them during this time.”
Dana, your concept of posttraumatic growth, I wonder if as we move into close if you could just let everyone know what that is and what we might be looking forward to here, as we begin to recover together.
Yeah. As challenging as it has been to listen to some of the stories with the women I’ve spoken with, as many tears have been brought to my eyes and hearing some of their challenges, I have just as much, if not more, been inspired by some of the silver linings that they have expressed. That every single participant, every single one has referenced some aspect of gratitude based on what has come out of this crisis has referenced some… not all have referenced optimism, but many have referenced optimism and what the next chapter might bring or ways that they can be proactive in driving the life that they want, the balance that they want, the career that they want, the household that they want.
And so I am inspired by that. And I think that keeping an eye on what is the good that can come out of this can be so important that even in the days that can be so fraught with just being overloaded and having a million things on the to do list that you don’t check off any items off, there still are the good aspects, the positive aspects, the growing that we can derive from this.
And we’re all going to be a lot stronger on the other end of this and more resilient. And really a lot of us are worried about our kids, but kids are also amazingly resilient and they bounce back. And still every day when my daughter is going to a YMCA day camp right now. And when she leaves and says, “Oh, mommy, I forgot my mask.” And she’ll grab her mask and run out the door. And I’ll kind of have a moment and think, “Gosh, masks! Remember back when that didn’t use to be a daily thing and all these struck them.” But she doesn’t care. She’s just doing it and running out to her day to go play with her friends. And so I think-
We just need to realize this is a time of change. And we working moms can realize that this is a chance for us to flip the script with our careers, with how we negotiate day to day arrangements with our partners, with how we approach how we parent our children. And that, again, this opportunity is something that we can proactively drive. We can be empowered to do that. We don’t just have to react and let things unfold. We are in the driver’s seat with all this.
Well, so wonderful. Listeners, expect, I’m sure, to see lots of headlines. I know that you’re talking to major news outlets right now, and we really are here in support of you. And anything else we can do to support your work, Dana, let us know.
Thank you. The more resources out there for people, the better. Thank you so much for helping to give voice to the women I was so lucky to speak with. And as a fellow working mom, solidarity, my friend.
Like, yes, sister. High five. All right. That’s been it for today on Allowed. I’m so excited. I would love to actually invite you if you are a manager of parents, whether you have children yourself or not, to reach out to me. I’m very, very curious about what your experience has been like so far and I’d love to hear from one of you actually on the show.
So please reach out to me. You can find my contact information at allowedpodcast.com where you can also access the downloadables. Another great way to surface your voice in a more public fashion might be to leave a review on iTunes and reference this show and talk a little bit about how it might relate to your own experience as a parent, a non-parent, an employee, a teammate, a spouse, a teacher. We’d love to hear from all of you. So thank you for being here today. Thank you for standing for growth, yours and ours collectively. And I’ll see you next week.