COVID-19: What Mothers in Your Office Aren’t Telling You
A friend has four children, the youngest an infant. She is doing her paid work in the middle of the night but doesn’t want her colleagues to know. Another woman I know is caring for her elderly and immuno-compromised mother, doing her mother’s shopping and picking up medications, in addition to caring for her children—even as she continues to fulfill her work responsibilities.
Like many people, especially mothers of young children, and even those with flexible jobs, the women I know are straining under the pressure of round-the-clock “pandemic parenting” and eldercare. With schools and childcare centers closed, play dates canceled, and caregiving by family or others suspended, mothers who still have jobs are struggling to complete their work assignments while caring for children.
But they are afraid to talk openly about their struggles with their managers and colleagues, lest they be perceived as not working enough; they are concerned that being frank could make them vulnerable to losing their jobs, as so many have already.
Their current situation is not sustainable, as the coronavirus shutdown threatens to extend for months. And while this situation poses challenges for men, too, it hits women harder. After all, women still undertake the disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities, and the very infrastructure that makes full-time work possible for many mothers—assistance from relatives, daycare, school—has, for the first time in at least a century, fully shut down in many countries around the world.
I still have a job—one that allows me to work from home during the coronavirus crisis. My husband, who’s also working from home, shares the childcare responsibilities. We have paid sick days. At ages 13 and 11, my children can work independently for a few hours. But the days of juggling young children are not that far behind me and this crisis reminds me how vulnerable mothers feel. Since I work at Catalyst, which helps build workplaces that work for women, I am hyper-aware of the power that organizations have—especially in the absence of government action—to build and sustain a culture of openness and inclusion so that no one has to hide who they are and what they are facing.
What Employers Can Do
At Catalyst, we temporarily suspended tracking for sick days. In addition, all managers, from the CEO on down, are encouraging open conversations about working flexibly—not just where and when the work gets done, but how much gets done.
If you are a manager, we recommend that you have a frank talk with your team. Show empathy and create space for people to gain a sense of psychological safety. Acknowledge the need of some staff as caregivers while simultaneously fulfilling their work responsibilities, and the stress involved in doing so. Clarify that when something has to give, safety and the needs of loved ones come first.
Focus on the Big Picture
If you personally are not dealing with caregiving needs, speak up for those who are afraid to do so. Focus on your team’s effort rather than the number of hours worked.
Adjust your expectations and employees’ annual goals during this unusual period. Trust and empower them to work when and how much they can. For those without extra obligations at home, respect their need for self-care as well during this crisis, and reassure them they are not expected to make up for time other people don’t have. They can certainly help if they wish, and kindness is always appreciated during such a period, but there will be no repercussions for not doing so. Recognize that your coworkers may be dealing with many invisible factors, such as mental health issues or worry for loved ones far away, regardless of care-giving obligations.
Don’t let this temporary crisis derail your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) progress and inadvertently lead to long-term results you will regret.
As many companies learn the hard way—when they increasingly establish returnship programs to hire back those who left the workforce because it did not accommodate their caregiving responsibilities—losing talent because of a temporary situation is expensive and short-sighted. It is far better to discuss with each person what they need to get by in the short term until the crisis passes.
Above all, remember that openness and frank communication are central to creating and preserving a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce. This crisis underscores the importance of having women serve in senior leadership roles, as they are much more likely to understand, experience, and normalize the immense burden that closing schools causes for working women.
Treat this moment as a community challenge rather than an individual woman’s problem to solve in the middle of the night. You will be repaid in loyalty, retention of the best talent, and the increased productivity that working mothers, and a diverse and inclusive workplace, bring.
Vice President, Global Administration & Legal Affairs, Chief Privacy Officer
Emily Zuckerman leads Catalyst’s legal affairs, directing compliance, risk management, governance, and contract management functions for Catalyst’s US headquarters and its global affiliates. She oversees the day-to-day operations of the Legal team and acts as senior business partner to leadership on operating and strategic issues, including efforts to establish entities in new…