For months now we’ve all been reading the data about the setbacks this pandemic has inflicted on women’s equality in the workplace. It’s now a well-worn narrative: “COVID-19 has driven millions of women out of the workforce”; “Coronavirus sent women’s progress backward”; “The pandemic has derailed working mothers.” Like many women in tech, I’ve been scared and concerned for the women I work alongside, invest in, and mentor. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve also been concerned for myself—and for my daughter.
Recently one of the most put-together and productive women I know confessed to me that she’d finally reached her breaking point. She’s been holding it down with a high-level position in venture capital, two elementary school-aged children, and an equally busy spouse. She managed to keep juggling (and juggling, and juggling), but when we spoke she confided she had reached her limit. After a week of deadlines, drop-offs, and very (very) little sleep, she realized she felt so mentally drained that she didn’t even trust herself to get behind the wheel of her car to come to an in-person meeting.
With the efficiency of a working mother, she drew up a new plan for herself, took it to her boss, and said: “Here’s what things need to look like for this to work going forward.” Luckily, her firm implemented the changes—like no company-wide meetings after 4 p.m.—on the spot. No doubt, this woman is extraordinarily fortunate to find herself in the position to ask for these changes without risking her livelihood, a privilege not every working mother has. But we need women who are in positions of power to push for policies like this that will benefit everyone.
When I was pregnant with my second child, my friend and then COO at TaskRabbit Stacy Brown-Philpot told me to “ask for what you need.” This seemingly straightforward advice can feel daunting for many women, but this is how real change happens. Women advocating for themselves and their changing needs helps shape workplaces that work for all women.
I’ve heard many similar stories from women in tech over the past few months, from a high-powered working mom who threatened to walk away from her prestigious position unless flexible scheduling remained the company-wide policy post-pandemic, to a mid-level manager who proactively drafted and pitched a new family leave policy for her young company. I’ve heard stories from department heads mandating that all team meetings must accommodate school pickup and drop-off times, and stories of recruiters insisting on formal returnship programs to help talented candidates return to the workforce after taking parental leave. The stories are different, but the theme is the same: All across tech and business more generally, women leaders are identifying and removing the barriers that prevent them and their colleagues from staying in the workforce.
These stories have forced me to confront a question that’s been on my mind for some time. Is there a way the women in tech can weaponize the vulnerability we are all feeling in this moment to change the pandemic narrative from setback to victory? Put in less-diplomatic terms: Why shouldn’t women simply assume the authority to define the new normal?
In late September, yet another data point of the pandemic’s impact on women was released. “Women in the Workplace 2021,” the seventh such report produced by McKinsey in partnership with Leanin.org, confirms the idea that COVID-19 has been catastrophic for working women. This time, we learned that women are significantly more burned out than they used to be, and significantly more burned out than men. A full 42% of women surveyed (out of a pool of 65,000 total employees spanning 423 organizations) admit to being burned out.
Also tucked into the McKinsey report was a detail that’s as unsurprising as it is potentially revolutionary: It’s women leaders who are the ones meeting this moment by assuming the burden of helping their teams keep it together during this untenable situation. The findings reveal that women managers are taking more action than their male counterparts in helping their teams prevent or manage burnout, navigate new work-life challenges, and balance workloads. They’re also the ones checking on workers’ overall well-being and providing the crucial emotional support many workers (especially working parents) need to continue sustaining the unsustainable. Is anyone surprised by this?
We are in chaotic times. There are no case studies to consider, no management science to reference here. Working women are still juggling and trying to hold it all together. And it seems counterintuitive for them to take on even more responsibility right now. But they are the ones with the solutions. They know firsthand what would best meet the needs of themselves and their peers.
Women are in the C-suite and in every department. They have teams of direct reports and public profiles they can leverage in an increasingly competitive talent war. At this moment, many of these women are quietly claiming the power they need to usher in an era of change that could lead to more equitable compensation, more flexible working situations, and a more inclusive tech industry at large. Specifically, I see them concentrating on four cornerstone actions:
They’re normalizing diverse priorities. With so many people now unapologetically placing family, activism, or creative pursuits at the center of their lives, women leaders are insisting on the flexible schedules necessary for their teams to survive and thrive.
They’re drawing up new models. Instead of waiting for their higher-ups to act, women at every level are taking the initiative to identify and design the policies that empower working parents and attract necessary talent.
They’re using their leverage. Highly sought-after candidates are muscling employers into more equitable practices for themselves and other women by clearly demanding the working conditions and compensation that can finally put women and minorities on equal footing.
They’re elevating their own corners. Women with direct reports are reimagining the workflows that will best serve their existing teams and the talent they’ll need in the future. They’re making impacts immediately by defining the new normal in the corners they already control.
There’s no sole authority to determine what the new normal will look like. Breathless article after breathless article (my own included) have pleaded with companies to do better for working parents, to create the urgently needed solutions that will keep women in the workforce, to show the leadership that so many women are already proactively (and yes, often thanklessly) practicing.
It may not be right to expect already overburdened women leaders to battle the structural forces of inequality and solve a mess they did not make—but, at this precise time, it just might be revolutionary. We’re the ones most capable of designing a new, better way to work that actually works for women. And—surprise, surprise—we’re also the ones most willing to actually do the work.
This is a moment of reinvention. The ones who seize it get to define what “new normal” means, quite possibly for generations to come. It’s user error to continue looking at this issue through the lens of disruption. The question that matters now is not, “How can we change the status quo?” The question that matters now is, “Who will determine what’s next?”
Leah Solivan is the founder of TaskRabbit and the general partner at Fuel Capital.