Reclaiming women’s progress post-pandemic
For just a few months in late 2019/early 2020, for the first time in history, the number of women in the workforce overtook the number of men. What an incredible milestone when you think about it!
Unfortunately, this did not last long. Nearly 3 million women have left the US workforce in the last year. The pandemic has sharply pushed us back a generation, with the number of women in the workforce now reverting back to levels not seen since I was growing up in the 1980s, when it was frankly more common to have a mom that stayed at home than a mom who worked. For many people, disproportionately for women, it became impossible to keep working when faced with losing childcare, having kids at home instead of at school, and taking on new responsibilities such as home-school teachers and home IT administrators.
I consider myself lucky among my peers.
When I interviewed at Adaptive a few years ago, I was excited about coming to work at this innovative biotech based in Seattle. However, being newly married with two tween stepdaughters and a home base in Boston, relocating across the country was a non-starter. On top of that, while I was interviewing, I found out I was pregnant. When I told my now-boss, Julie Rubinstein, about my pregnancy, to my surprise, she told me how genuinely thrilled she was for me. She assured me that if I wanted to move forward, we would figure it all out. That conversation set the tone for me. I accepted the offer. From that day forward, I have been able to continue investing heavily in my career and my company in a way that has also allowed me the flexibility to work remotely and be a mom. This is one of the reasons I feel especially committed to Adaptive to this day.
Don’t get me wrong – the hours are long and the work is hard. Biotech is an intense industry in normal times. The added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and Adaptive’s work in this space made for a wild year in quarantine. Everyone on my team and my coworkers have struggled, trying to balance dramatically increased work demands, our partners, our kids, personal lives and commitments, on top of the heavy burden of the uncertainty we were all facing in the world. As a leader, I was in a position where I could afford my team and my coworkers the same empathy and flexibility I have always had, knowing that the executive team and company had my back.
I am well aware that my experience has not been the norm. We have been so fortunate at Adaptive – the flexibility, support, and understanding that starts at the very top has been felt throughout the company during the pandemic, and we’ve experienced very few losses as a result. Many of my friends and peers at other companies have had to make the hard choice to put their careers on pause because it was simply not possible to manage kids’ needs and schedules, particularly without the network of friends and other parents we typically rely on for support. As I think about the range of different scenarios women have faced over the last year trying to ‘do it all,’ none of it seems fair.
As we move towards re-opening, we are now dealing with the realities of the “new normal” in different ways. In Seattle, where children in public schools have the option to return in person for 2.5 hours a day – a great first step to get kids back in school – working parents are faced with a logistical nightmare. It’s difficult to know what the future holds, or how we will recapture the progress that was so hard fought for women. However, I would like to offer a few lessons learned that may help other employers and leaders as we near the end of the pandemic, to create more inclusive workplaces going forward:
- Be flexible. Support employees with personal obligations outside of work, whether children, parents, or spouses, with flexibility. This investment in people will be paid back in droves. Employees who know that the other parts of their lives are valued and respected by their managers and employers will be more than willing to work “off-hours” (whatever that means nowadays) and feel more committed to their work. And let’s be honest – 9 to 5 is a thing of the past – which brings me to my next point.
- Work-life integration vs. work-life balance is here to stay. These rules don’t just apply in a pandemic. The past year has accelerated a trend that has progressed throughout my career. People are connected 24/7, everywhere they go. As employees, that often means that we are expected to be “on call” in a way that was frankly never possible in the past. By giving people the ability to disconnect when they need to, no matter what time that is, it gives people the freedom to attend to personal commitments and bring their full selves to work at a time when they can work productively and think clearly.
- It’s not just a women’s issue. As the pandemic has upended work and home life, women have carried an outsized share of the burden, more likely to shoulder the load of work at home, from cooking meals, supporting remote learning, and dealing with other logistics that fall out from closed schools and day care. So, importantly, this isn’t only about supporting women. It is also about extending that support to men to enable an overall more balanced share of care and family responsibilities.
This past year has put our personal lives on display to all our colleagues – the hopes and the fears, the joys and the messiness. As we round the corner past the challenges and tragedy, let’s find the silver lining and take the opportunity to focus on what we’ve learned and how it can change our lives for the better.
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