How Has COVID-19 Affected Women in the Workplace?
One year after the coronavirus pandemic upended the nature of work around the world, three alumnae gathered to discuss a year of challenges and triumphs.
- By March 16, 2021
- Booth Women
Julia Taxin, ’12, appeared to have her life completely together this past Wednesday as she spoke during a webinar about the pandemic’s impact on women in the workplace.
Taxin’s home office looked impeccable, her face looked rested, and her house seemed quiet. And then she admitted it was all a facade.
Taxin, a partner at venture capital firm Grotech Ventures, was speaking from her closet, she was using a virtual background, and she had given birth to her fourth child two months before the pandemic reared its ugly face.
“From a work perspective, work and home are very much blurred right now,” said Taxin, who said she remains grateful to have continued working throughout the pandemic, unlike millions of other working mothers.
She’s a shining example of the effect that the COVID-19 crisis has had on women. At the senior level, 47 percent of women have felt the need to be “always on,” and 54 percent say they have felt consistently exhausted since March 2020, according to a 2020 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org. As a result, 17 percent of mothers surveyed said they were considering reducing their work hours; 16 percent thought about switching to a less demanding job; and 15 percent contemplated taking a leave of absence.
Taxin—along with other leading women in business—gathered on Zoom to discuss how women can combat gender inequality, which has taken a bigger hit than ever in the past year. The event was part of the Booth Women Connect series, which brings together a powerful, collaborative community of women to network and foster meaningful discourse. Watch the full video below or scroll to read highlights.
Starr Marcello: All right. I think we are going to get started here. Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Starr Marcello. I’m the deputy dean for MBA programs at Chicago Booth. It is my pleasure to welcome you to today’s Booth Women Connect event, focused on women in the workplace. Allow me to start by telling you a little bit more about Booth Women Connect, a long-standing brand at Chicago Booth that has been bringing together a powerful, collaborative community of women for the past 10 years. BWC aims to foster meaningful connections that allow professionals across all industries exchange their own stories, grow their networks, and participate in meaningful discourse about the issues that they care about.
This year, of course, is unique. Chicago Booth has shifted this meaningful dialogue to our virtual community with the Booth Women Connect virtual event series. And so we’re excited to kick off this series today in partnership with McKinsey & Company with four experts in their fields discussing McKinsey’s groundbreaking 2020 study, Women in the Workplace.
I’d like to start by introducing our esteemed panelists, who we are so grateful to for joining us for this discussion. And I’m going to introduce them just in alphabetical order. Alaina Anderson is a partner and portfolio manager at William Blair, a global investment banking and wealth management firm. Alaina has over a decade of experience covering stocks globally and leading the decision-making for a $700 million portfolio. She’s also a Booth alumnus and the former president of the Chicago Booth School of Business Black Alumni Association.
Jennifer Scanlon is the president and CEO of UL, a global safety certification company. Prior to her role at UL, Jenny was the president and CEO of USG Corporation. She sits on the board of Norfolk Southern Corporations, is the vice chair of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the chair of the Commercial Club of Chicago. She is also a member of the Chicago Network, the Economic Club of Chicago, a board trustee for the University of Notre Dame and an advisor to the University of Chicago.
And we have Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech Ventures an early stage technology-focused VC firm. She has more than 10 years of experience in venture capital, finance and consulting and serves on the board or led the investments for many organizations, including Airside Mobile, Backbone PLM, Drum Technologies, Optoro, and The Mom Project. As I mentioned, just a moment ago, we also have the distinct pleasure of partnering with McKinsey & Company for this discussion. And leading the conversation is senior partner at McKinsey & Company, Kweilin Ellingrud.
Kweilin is the leader of McKinsey’s life insurance work in North America, and she is a member of the McKinsey Global Institute Council. Her expertise includes women in STEM, accelerating gender equality through investment strategies, women in leadership, and the future of work. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce our moderator, Kweilin Ellingrud. Kweilin, over to you.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful. Thank you Starr. And thank you to all of you for joining in what is I know a very challenging year actually personally and likely professionally. Our goal is to talk about 2020. And as we head into 2021, what have been the challenges, potentially what have been the silver linings. And before I jump into some of the fact-based, we wanted to get a poll of how all of you are feeling.
So if you could flash up the poll a year into this new normal, what are the top issues that are keeping you up at night? And you can select up to as many as a challenge for you, difficulty working from home, childcare or homeschooling responsibilities, mental health, physical health of your own or loved ones, work responsibilities or others.
I don’t know if we can pull up the poll results. A lot on physical responsibilities and burnout by far. Quite a bit on mental health and we’re actually seeing quite a huge jump in mental health hotlines. I think a number of companies have actually increased their support on mental health, but seen a lot more usage in this last year, followed closely by physical health of me or loved ones would be the clear top three there. So thank you for sharing that. We’re actually going to touch on some of that, both in the fact base that we share now, but also in some of our panelists perspectives as well.
So let’s jump in. I want to give you a quick tour of where we are in terms of gender equality across the talent pipeline, and specifically what has changed as a result of COVID-19. So if you can show just the two pages that we wanted to anchor on in the beginning. Some of you may be aware of our Women in the Workplace research. This is the sixth year of our partnership. We’re actually kicking off the benchmarking for year seven in partnership with Lean In. It’s published every year in October in the Wall Street Journal. And it’s the broadest and deepest gender equality benchmarking of its kind. Over 300 different companies collectively employing 12 million employees across the US and North America.
And let me just kind of anchor on where the talent pipeline is and what those pinch points are. If you look at the third row from the bottom, the talent pipeline across all mixes of industries in the United States starts off at 47 percent women at that entry level, it then drops down by nine percentage points at that first promotion to manager, and then five or so percentage points at every single level, all the way down to 21 percent, or one in five of the C-suite.
So you might think one in five, not so bad, but even that belies a bit of the balance of power in the typical C-suite. Because a woman is much more likely to be the head of HR, chief legal counsel, CIO, CTO versus running the largest P&L or the second largest P&L. And if we want to shift what has been inching up towards 7 percent of S&P 500 CEOs who are women, we need to shift this staff-role versus line-role mix, because almost all of those CEOs are promoted from running the biggest P&L or the second biggest P&L to that CEO role.
You might also look at the entry-level back to that 47 percent on that third row from the bottom and think, okay, 47 percent is almost 50/50, but keep in mind that women in the US as well as across the world in most developing countries earn the majority of bachelor degrees, have college degrees.
In fact, in the US women get 56 percent, between 56 and 57 percent every year of college degrees. So if the fortune 500 companies were getting their fair share of college educated talent, that number would be quite a bit higher there. And then at that drop off by nine percentage points from 47 percent to 38 percent, that’s what we call the broken rung. That broken rung of first promotions to manager. And if I index to say it in another way, for every 100 men who are promoted to first level manager, only 85 women are promoted and 58 Black women.
And that’s the challenge that we see across the rest of this talent pipeline. If I were to aggregate that promotion gap over five years across these industries, that’s the equivalent of 1 million missing women in leadership positions. And what you’ve got here is five years, 1 million missing women here, another five years and other million missing women there in leadership positions aggregated across this entire talent pipeline.
The other aspect to take a look at is women of color. They start off at 18 percent of the entry level, quite proportional to men of color. And in this case, that is Black, Latina, and Asian all added together, but it drops off really dramatically. Three percent of the C-suite, literally one out of 35 people reporting to a CEO is either a Black, Latina, or Asian woman all added together.
So that drop-off, and that intersectionality is quite severe. So that’s the current fact base. Let’s shift quickly to what has COVID-19 done? How has it affected some groups more than others? As we dug into the research on the next page, what you’ll see is that three groups were disproportionately affected, and those were mothers of young children, Black women, and senior-level women. Everybody was affected of course, as we continue to live through this to some extent, but these groups disproportionately so. Mothers of young children, first pre-COVID, were starting off a very unequal base. Women in the United States do twice as much unpaid care work as men.
So the shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids, taking care of parents, taking care of in-laws, that was already two to one pre-COVID. Now you add to that for mothers of young children, 40 percent of mothers added 15 hours a week or more to their weekly working schedule versus 27 percent of fathers. So 40 percent versus 27 percent, very unequal add off of a very unequal base. And mothers have been disproportionately exiting the workforce over the course of the last year. I think 400,000 more women mothers have exited versus men.
That’s led to one in four mothers worrying that their performance is going to be negatively affected by their other responsibilities. Black women also have been disproportionately affected. Over half of them are the only Black woman on their team. In terms of microaggressions, they are 1.6 times more likely to hear demeaning remarks about people like them.
One in four Black women, for example, here surprise at their ... other people express surprise at their verbal abilities. And here’s where the intersection of both racial equality in the workplace and health disparities come together. Black women are 2.5 times, nearly three times as likely as their white female peers to have experienced the death of a loved one during COVID.
At the same time, they’re 1.5 times less likely to feel comfortable sharing that in the workplace, less comfortable sharing their full and authentic selves at work. And you have this health disparity with this racial equity disparity or this racial disparity in the workplace coming together at a time when we’re having a racial equity crisis in this country. So because of that and a number of other reasons, Black women and Black men are considering downshifting at a much higher rate than their white peers.
Downshifting would be exiting the workforce altogether, as we’ve seen with a number of women or shifting from a full-time role to a part-time role, or perhaps a less strenuous role. Senior women were also more disproportionately affected. They felt more pressure to work longer hours than before COVID. Almost half of them said they feel like they have to be always on, highly visible, a lot of pressure. And over half, as we saw in the survey just now at the beginning have felt consistently exhausted.
And we know that senior women do a disproportionate amount of the emotional work and leadership for diversity efforts across organizations. They are much more likely than their male peers to mentor, sponsor women, but also other diverse leaders in the organization or lead one of these initiatives. So if those very people are the most exhausted and the most considering stepping back, that’s going be a challenge for all of us.
So while everyone was affected, I think keeping in mind these three particular groups, mothers, especially of young children as school goes digital and remote, Black women and senior-level women. And with that, we can pull down the fact base there,. and I would love to open it up to our panelists. You have had amazing success in industries that frankly aren’t very diverse at the top. Could you share with us some of your journey, but specifically what you think has helped make you successful?
Alaina Anderson: Kweilin I don’t know if you want us to do open outcry, but I’m AA so I’m used to being first. Thank you so much for this work. It’s very, very important. I hope we all amplify this work back at our workplaces. I think that being in spaces where I have been the only woman or the only person of color has been central to my journey and particularly how I have dealt with that discomfort has really I think, been central to each phase of my journey.
And I would say early in my career in financial services, and I think my career is about 25 years at the moment. Early in my career, I dealt with the unease of sometimes being the only woman, sometimes being the only person of color, sometimes being the youngest by leaning on my foundation, my good home training and all the discipline that got me to where I was.
So I was focused on being poised and prepared and likable, which meant outgoing. And that was good armor for a while. And as my career evolved, I became more aware of other people’s discomfort with my presence. And my attention turned to managing their discomfort with me rather than my own discomfort. And what does that look like? It could look like changing the tone and texture of your voice, changing the tone and texture of your hair. Again, wanting to be likable, but instead of being outgoing, shrinking.
I’ll say I’m glad to be done with that phase. That was a dark phase. I’ve moved on to a phase where I am embracing discomfort. I’m more comfortable with being uncomfortable than most. I can step into silence with a thoughtful comment. I can let an awkward silence linger. I can solicit uncomfortable feedback. I can be challenged in public in that wither. And so that stepping into discomfort and really leveraging it, I think is where a lot of growth and excitement has come. And the phase that I’m in right now, it’s not called growing pains for nothing.
Discomfort brings growth. So I’m happy to be in this space. And I recognize that I’m in it, because there are women and allies who are amplifying my voice and making that environment what it is right now. I don’t know what the next phase is, but I hope that discomfort of being so unique or the only one does not feature so prominently in and that’s why this work is so important and this conversation is so important.
Julia Taxin: I can jump in there next. So I’ve always looked at it as an advantage versus a disadvantage. And so perfect example is I joined Grotech straight out of business school as an associate. And I got asked to be on this panel in DC and I was two weeks into the job. And I said, sure, why not? And I get on the panel and I’m looking around and it’s all these new managing directors of the other venture firms in the area. And then me an associate, and very quickly I realized that I’m the token woman on the panel.
And from that point on, I said, I’m going to use that to my advantage to get great opportunities that might not otherwise be there for me. And so I think I’ve used that kind of as a driver towards my success in the industry. And then honestly I found just a great peer group of female VCs to help support me over the years, ones that I can have open and honest dialogue with. So I think finding that network and that feedback loop that confidential feedback loop has been very, very important to me.
Jennifer Scanlon: Let me chime in a little bit here from the perspective of it being probably by far the oldest one here and lived through ... I’m going to call it the second generation of women really ascending into the work place. My aunt, who is 20 years older than I am, was in that first gen generation and was one of the very top leaders at IBM, a company where I started my career and they had spent a lot of time cultivating diversity. But even at IBM, I was in a division of less than I think 10 percent women. I was in the service division. I went to Booth at night while I was at IBM. I was one of 10 percent of women at Booth. I had gone through Notre Dame, starting out in as an honors math major, one of two women out of the freshman class at Notre Dame who were in the honors math program and in the arts and theater school.
And then moving into computer applications where I think there were maybe a half a dozen women in my class going through that. So what I learned is that I focused more on my journey around skills and expertise, and also focusing on where I could find those sponsors of those mentors to help me. And I think one of the most pivotal moments in my career was when I was named CIO, Chief Information Officer at USG Corporation in 2007. And we went through strategic planning process the next year and our CEO at the time Bill Foote and our COO at the time Jim Metcalf, I think they were each pretty satisfied and thrilled to have me as CIO.
I was, I think, 42 years old and be CIO for the rest of my career. And that’s not what I aspire to do, and I love technology, but I wanted to be in the business and I had come from consulting and I missed that revenue generation side. I missed that customer impact. So I told them that, and they were both stunned. Like, “Hey, you just got promoted, aren’t you happy?” But because I was willing to really kind of own what experiences I wanted to have, and because I was willing to put myself out there and that felt a little scary at the time, but I’m glad I did it because if I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a CIO. I’d be a great CIO. I did love that job, but I would not have been named CEO of USG corporation nor CEO of UL, Inc. So that’s been my journey.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Thank you for sharing all of that. I’d love to hear how you have coped during COVID maybe some of the challenges, potentially some of the silver linings, and any tips you have for the group here. And I might Julia start with you and then Alaina and Jennifer.
Julia Taxin: Sure. Mine’s a little unique because I have four young children and I had just had a baby right before COVID hit. So I had a baby in January. I was back at work for two days and then on lockdown. So those first few months were very difficult being at home while my kids were doing virtual school. I’ve learned to be more patient with my children and understanding of the situation that they’re in. And then from our work perspective, it’s very hard because work and home are very much blurred right now, right.
I’m sitting actually in my closet, you can’t tell because of my virtual background, but I’m upstairs in my closet, which is where I hide out during the day in order to really get my work done and have some quiet time. So for me, I found that, the days where I was sitting in front of my computer all day and didn’t get outside, even for a few minutes and kind of stayed within my 100 foot radius upstairs were the days that were the more difficult for me mentally. And so also from a scheduling perspective and real life, pre-COVID you would never schedule back to back meetings all day long and during the COVID world, I feel like that’s kind of expected, you should be available at all times. And so just finding those breaks in my schedule, I think has been very important for me.
Alaina Anderson: I pair it a lot with what Julia mentioned. I don’t have four children, but I have two elementary school aged children who are doing school from home. And it’s been difficult. 2020, talk about leaning into comfort, had numerous opportunities to do that in 2020. Not only was there the pandemic, but there was an escalation of racial tension. There was the events and viral videos of racial injustice and the ensuing protests and riots. It was an election year. So figuring out when to lean into that and when to fortify myself was critical in 2020. And I think I did both because I feel very lucky and blessed that I did not have to deal with some of the things that so many women of color had to deal with. And that’s financial insecurity, job insecurity, housing insecurity.
I didn’t have to deal with those things in 2020 and health. We all were very healthy in 2020, thankfully. I think that what helped me deal, however, with what I did have to deal with was requested /requiring flexibility from my workplace, to the extent I could. Asking for/investing in help. I can’t be tech support and for the kids and do my job too and get dinner done. So we’re invested in meal kits around here. We got somebody helping out right now. So I had to do that and making room for empathy. So I am very lucky to have empathetic colleagues who checked in on me and I paid that forward. Empathy is one of those things that when it grows on you, you learn how to do it and it’s a muscle that you can begin to exercise.
So I was the beneficiary of empathy. I gave that out and I gave it to myself. I do think that 2020 was a unique year to lean into your voice. The organization needed our voices more than ever in 2020. And I think that one reality for me was that don’t underestimate the need for your voice at your company. Sometimes the conversation that needs to be convened needs to be convened by you. So it was this notion of leaning in and leaning out and learning that balance, I think has been key in this pandemic.
Jennifer Scanlon: Sorry, we’re doing the unmute button here. It was interesting for me when COVID hit, I was six months as the new CEO of a company that I had been a customer of, but really was unfamiliar with. I have employees all over the globe. I have direct reports in Singapore, across the United States and as well as on my operating committee, Europe. So just the sheer challenge of trying to get us all on phone calls, required many meetings to start at five or six in the morning as they still do today. And many ending at eight or nine o’clock at night and sometimes later. And part of why we found ourselves just going around the clock on some things is one, as I said, I was a new CEO. So I was trying to figure out the lay of the land.
Two, and I don’t know if this is originally attributed to Benjamin Netanyahu or Rahm Emanuel. I’ve heard them both say it, but don’t waste a good crisis. And we were in a crisis and it was an opportunity for me to do a couple of things, none of which I anticipated at the beginning of the crisis. One, we overhauled our strategy. We were doing that anyway, but we had an opportunity to accelerate it. It turned into a completely new organization model. In fact, as of January 1st, this year, I would say my top 200 leaders have new jobs, new team members, new responsibilities, or a new boss.
Imagine the stress that’s putting on my organization in addition to COVID. And I’m very aware of that. So we’ve got this time challenge, we’ve got this new strategy opportunity, which is really terrific. And then you add in the crisis that evolved around social justice and civil rights and the need to address the pain that our employees were feeling, not just in the United States, but around the world.
And we actually seized upon that crisis in a couple different ways. It was really creating this concept of psychological safety in the workplace and having those conversations in every country around the world, but actually rapidly accelerating our D&I goals and putting those out there and putting ourselves as a company out there on the forefront in a way that I don’t want to say it wasn’t on our agenda at the beginning of the year, but it certainly wasn’t going to be the number two priority on my list after corporate strategy.
So I think the making lemonade out of COVID, I guess is the only way I can describe this. I could have spent the whole year really wallowing in the fact of I’m new, we’re just going to hunker down and try to survive this instead of I’m new, we’re going to overhaul and rethink everything that we do in the context of this crisis. But indeed, if you were to ask my team, it just put a lot of extra stress on me and on them, and it is a time like no other.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Absolutely. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Alaina, you mentioned kind of empathy paying it forward. I would love to start with you and explore what have you implemented or seen that companies can do to improve gender equality, racial equality. Maybe we could start with you Alaina and then over to you Jennifer, and then Julia.
Alaina Anderson: Sure. Thanks Kweilin. I anticipated that question. There is at least four things that the workplace needs to do to mitigate the trends that you’re highlighting in your work and make sure that we don’t lose the gains we’ve made in gender diversity and racial and ethnic diversity. I think coaching empathy with intention. So you actually have to coach this up. Your leadership has to have the tools that they need to be successful in reaching out to those people that they manage to check in on folks and just lead with empathy. So I think that’s an important thing that organizations need to do.
I think organizations need to really mobilize or create their employee resource groups. So your employee resource groups are going to be a key way to get in tune with the different affinity groups within your organization and understand what they’re lacking, what they need to convene conversations and get information from them and have them feel heard.
I would also say a third point would be examine your benefits with an eye towards what you’re investing in, and how does it support this very fragile improvement we’ve made in gender diversity and racial and ethnic diversity. So how are you investing in benefits that support retaining women and people of color? And the last thing I would say is we talk about inclusivity and creating an inclusive culture. And what rings true to me is this analogy of diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusivity is being asked to dance, and I know it’s cheesy, but it resonates when you have been a person who’s been an unintentional wallflower, who’s been relegated to the sidelines, who’s watched the festivities from the outside and you know what it feels like to be asked to dance, how affirming that is, how invigorating that is. And when you get asked to dance, you might mess around and lead. So creating an inclusive workplace and an inclusive culture, I think would be one of the most important things that work workplaces need to focus on doing.
Jennifer Scanlon: I think those are all four excellent points. And I will tell you in addition to, I’m going to go back to the coaching with empathy and intention as an opening comment there. I also would say recruit and interview with empathy and intention, and that that’s something that we’ve been very focused on with regard to improving diversity and inclusion. And I would tell you at the leadership level, in my operating committee at UL, we’re very diverse. I was actually really pleasantly surprised when I joined UL and saw my team and we’ve continued to add to that.
So I feel good that the tone at the top is set, but if we go down into the organization, there is still opportunity for improvement. And so I think this interviewing with empathy and intention, I’m going to start using that, is a tops down and a bottoms up. We’ve got to bring people in very early in their careers and then coach them and ensure that they stay and that they get the right sponsorships and the right connections made and the right opportunities. And then from the tops down, we’ve got to make sure we’re pulling people up through and tapping the right people on the shoulder and giving them the right opportunities and taking some risks on some people who may get promoted sooner than their predecessors may have gotten promoted, but they’re ready. And what I’ve always found is that they’ll surprise you and most frequently knock it out of the park because they’ve been waiting to step up to the plate.
Julia Taxin: So all of our portfolio companies are early stage technology companies, which historically have skewed very not diverse, I’ll say in a nice way. So, last year we forced all of our portfolio companies to talk about diversity in the workplace and the first step’s really identifying the current state for these companies is our small teams. Sometimes five to 10 that are looking to grow, double, sometimes triple their workforce right after we make our initial investments. So we do have a voice and an influence over what that growth looks like.
So after identifying that current state, we had a wide range of outcomes and identifying those gaps to get them to where they needed to be. So some environments needed to have a more flexible schedule to attract the right talent. Others specifically identified the need to add X amount of diverse talent to the management team or the board. We really needed to be proactive about changing the status quo, or you’re going to continue down the same path. I’m fortunate that all of my CEOs are very supportive and had a big focus on creating an inclusive environments.
One of the boards that I’m on and one of my most successful investments so far is a company called The Mom Project. I’m actually based there in Chicago locally. And it’s a huge focus for the company, getting women back to work after having children. I do believe it’s on the companies to adjust in the long term and think that actually remote work as a result of COVID has been a positive thing in general.
So one thing I’ve noticed during all of this madness has been how the workplace has been humanized quite a bit. So you’re not just having a face-to-face interaction with somebody in a sterilized conference room. You’re seeing into their homes and you’re seeing their kids running around in the background, their dogs barking and seeing these are real people that you’re interacting with. And so I do think to that the empathy point it has, I think had a positive impact. I think it’s on the companies to rise to the occasion and allow for more flexibility and whether that’s remote work or flexible hours, I think in the long term, it’ll really benefit women and diverse candidates.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful. I’m getting a couple of questions here from the audience. So maybe one last question, incorporating those before we open it up to some of the Q&A coming in. But I’d love to hear what advice you have for women starting out early in their careers, potentially even in this remote environment, but broadly, what advice would you have? And I might start with you Jennifer then Julia and Alaina.
Jennifer Scanlon: Well, I’m happy to talk about this because I have a senior in college and I’ve been giving her and her friends a tremendous amount of advice right now. And the biggest piece of advice I can give anyone is if you have ever networked before in the past, amp it up even more. And if you haven’t networked get started, you got to network like nobody’s business right now. The good news is, is that so many people here understand what new college grads are going through. New graduate school grads are going through and we want to help.
Here’s a really good example. I was on a happy hour just cocktail call with four of my oldest friends. And one of them said to me, “Hey, my daughter’s boyfriend graduated. He had been engineering majors, switched to finance. He’s a really good kid. And by the way, his dad used to work at UL. And unfortunately his dad passed away, any opportunities for him?” And I was like, of course, I’ve known this friend of mine for 25 years. I’ve never met her daughter’s boyfriend. I got him on the phone. I talked to him about his career opportunities. I introduced him to a bunch of different people. We are all ready and waiting to help, we get it. I’ve probably had two dozen of those types of phone calls in the four months. So please, if you’re ever uncomfortable about networking, get over it, now is the time to get really good at it.
Julia Taxin: I would echo Jennifer’s comments. You never know who’s going to help you and who’s going to connect you to another person, is going to connect you to that third person that will be the person who ends up hiring you. And that’s kind of how I got to my path to be completely honest. Even if somebody doesn’t respond to you right away, try again, because at least for me, if an email goes three days and it isn’t responded to, it’s buried and never sees the light of day again. So network with as many people as you possibly can and take every introduction, even if you don’t think, “Oh, this is exactly what I want to do. And this isn’t the person that I want to be networking with.”
You don’t know who they know or who they’re related to. So really taking advantage of that. And then what I mentioned before, finding a peer group or similar interests who you can use as a sounding board. I made that a huge focus as I was getting into venture. And I’ve found that to be a very valuable resource. And these are people who’ll give you honest feedback and are there to support you throughout your career. And I’ll do a little Booth plug. I’m lucky to have a few of my Booth classmates as my peer group circle, and obviously added to that group as I’ve built out my network over the years.
Alaina Anderson: So I don’t have much to add to what Jennifer and Julia said. I would say that this is a very interesting moment of disruption where young voices are needed for organizations to be able to transform and pivot to be ready for what’s to come. So I agree that meeting as many people, talking to as many people, listening to the experiences of others, you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. So you reach out to people and listen and take in lots of information as you launch your career. To the extent you can, don’t be finite. Think unlimited, think off shore, think bigger. And that peer circle or sister circle that you develop should be people with a similar growth mindset. I think that would be a great foundation as you start your career.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful. I’m going to start filtering in here some questions from the audience now, and we won’t ask everybody to necessarily respond. So just one or two of you want to share your thoughts, please do that. But this question came in. Why is work-life balance so difficult including self-care and mental health care, and what strategies or steps do you think could make that easier?
Julia Taxin: I’m happy to just start on this one. Yes. So I think the balance right now is as I said, so blurred, just given you should be always available and no one’s traveling, or most people aren’t traveling at this point. So for me, at least finding the time to put my phone down and not respond to things for a designated amount of time. And for me, that’s personally the time I have with my kids at night before they go to bed. And then again, first thing in the morning, and then I have taken up working out and I’m a Peloton user.
So that’s my time in the morning where I focus and I throw my phone across the room and I want it to be buzzing all morning. I want nothing to do with it until after I’m done with my workout. So I think intentionally carving out those times, it’s so important right now. And even if it’s blocking it on your schedule so that nobody books anything but it depends obviously person by person as to how that works for your schedule.
Jennifer Scanlon: Let me add in one interesting piece of coaching advice I got close to 15-plus years ago when my girls were quite young and it was a coach who said to me, “Listen, Jenny women who are successful typically become successful because they’re used to trying to do it all.” She said to me, “When’s the last time you asked somebody for a favor?” I said, “I would never ask somebody for a favor.” This is my world. I’ve got to control it. And she gave me an assignment. She said, “Listen. One, to build relationships and two to help yourself balance, you have to learn to ask people for favors. So before I see you next month, you better have asked three people for favors.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? How is this going to work?”
And I learned, it makes you vulnerable, it sometimes is a little uncomfortable. It’s similar to networking, but to ask for that favor of like, “Hey, you know what, I’m gonna miss the carpool.” Or, “Hey, you know what? I can’t make this meeting. Can you attend it on my behalf and take notes and let me know if there’s anything I need to know?” Or “Hey, you know what, I am not the right person to be in this meeting. So can you do me a favor and invite this person instead because they’ll give much better insight into the topic than I would give.” Or “Hey, no, I’m not baking brownies for the PTA. I hate doing that, but I will bring store-bought cookies if you guys can handle it. And if not, I’ll be happy to sign up next time.”
But learning to ask those favors. And also when people ask you a favor, learning to give back, it builds deeper relationships, but it does really help with that balance. It helped me a lot.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Excellent. Thank you for sharing that. Alaina, I have a question here for you that came up. It says other than experience, how did you grow into being comfortable in your discomfort? Did you have a group of mentors may on knowledge, what kind of tools can you recommend for someone of color in financial services or beyond to grow in their comfort levels?
Alaina Anderson: Yeah, thanks for the question. I would say there’s a number of things, I would point to two. One would be the birth of my daughter. So my daughter’s eight and very early on, I could tell, by the way she looked at me that I was her mirror and she looked to me to craft her identity and how she thought of beauty and how she saw self-worth and that will get you straight. Knowing that I had to model those things for her made me very intentional about showing up as I am for her and for me. That’s a little fluffy of an answer, but that’s real. And I would also say that Jennifer mentioned having a coach. I did have an executive coach and we had a six month engagement, very long engagement because I was a hard case.
And he at the end of the engagement had said ... He did a 360 and he said, “You know, everybody already knows you’re good enough. You can move on.” And that was worth the six-month engagement and the however much it cost, because I was anchored in proving that I belonged in the room and at the table, and everybody else had moved on, they were looking for a next-level commitment from me. They were looking for a next-level contribution from me. And it was validating to know that everybody already knew I was good and it unleashed me to do bigger things.
So I guess I would sum that up to say it comes through lived experience. No one expects you to show up on day one and be amazingly self-aware, but do open yourself up to those moments where self-awareness is presented and receive what it gives you.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Thank you. This is an open question for everyone. How will society likely change based on the lessons of the pandemic and its impact on women in the workplace? Any thoughts on what the future holds, maybe post-pandemic, what will stick, what won’t? Maybe what you hope will stick?
Jennifer Scanlon: We’re spending a lot of time debating this internally for a number of different reasons, both on things like travel budgets, hiring plans, rehabbing corporate headquarters. I hope, I’m very hopeful that a comment made earlier about eyes being open. I think Julia said this, that we don’t have to be tied to our desks at eight-to-five jobs to provide more opportunities for women, working mothers, dual-career couples to have the type of flexibility that really is required to be able to have a career and raise children, both for men and for women.
And I think that that’s something that frequently gets overlooked that dual-career couples with children, there’s lots of benefits to it, but it also adds lots of pressure all around. But I am disheartened when I look at the numbers of women who are departing the workforce during COVID right now. And I am concerned that it’s going to be more of a setback than it is going to be an advantage as we’ve made this shift. I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives.
Julia Taxin: I agree. And the numbers are staggering and continue to be. So, I do think there is a portion of that population of a woman who won’t return to the workforce, that’s their choice, right? And some of them may have realigned what is important to them, maybe they realized that they wanted to homeschool their children. And I’ve heard those stories a few times of, it’s not for me, I am a terrible teacher to my children. I’ve tried, I have such respect for teachers but that wasn’t for me. I think there is a subset that won’t go back. And then obviously the long-term effects of the women who have left their workforce who are looking to get back into the workforce and that’ll be, I think in the form of re-skilling, some women may have to take a year or two years off and that is going to be a huge setback for us as a gender, obviously.
And so just the programs that are going to be available to these women going forward and the efforts that we’ll need to be focused on in order to get them back up to speed and back and reentering the workforce, I think will be a huge focus on that. And then the travel obviously, I’d prefer not to be living on airplanes anymore. And it did make me realize how often I was flying pre-COVID. So that I think in the long-term will be a positive.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful. I’d love to ask a couple more questions with the remaining time we have. One question came in on how do we empower male employees to be an ally for women in the workplace? You saw that talent pipeline, unless we’re going to engage our male colleagues, we’re not going to be able to do this alone. So what suggestions would you have there?
Alaina Anderson: This is not a direct answer to that specific question, but in June there were Bloomberg headlines, many more Bloomberg headlines than I’ve ever seen about Juneteenth, which is an acknowledgement of the end of slavery, which came actually after the ratification of the end of slavery in the US. But Bloomberg never talked about Juneteenth until this year. And I know all of my colleagues are seeing this and I know they don’t know what Juneteenth is. So I called at my boss and I said, “Hey, there’s like 10 headlines about Juneteenth. Do you mind if I take three minutes in morning meeting tomorrow and discuss what this is and why it’s important.”
And I think what I heard on the other side of the phone was relief, because he needed someone to step in that space and he didn’t know how to ask me because he also knows, “She’s got a lot going on, I don’t want to burden her with.” So I think part of it is availing yourself of the opportunity to be a sounding board, to be a voice, to be a partner in this work. Just taking the McKinsey study and circulating it around to our executive committee and say, “Hey, I’d love to partner with you to think through solutions to mitigate this trend.” I think pays dividends. And so we have to lean into this moment and be leaders in order to I think get some momentum from our male allies.
Jennifer Scanlon: And if I can just add one thing to that, is framing it in the way that this is good for our business advances things, I feel a lot faster. So I know there was some questions about how do you get people to think outside the box and it’s male dominated. We’ve never done that before. I think if you frame it in this is why it’s good for the business. And may even give you a quick example from my former company, a manufacturing company. In the first 115 years, we had one female plant manager out of 70 plants in North America. 115 years, one female, two female VPs.
When you got down to it, why was that? While we were hiring, we had started hiring plenty. We were moving them through the pipeline, but we had a requirement that they had to work in three different plants before they’d become a plant manager. Well, again, two-career couples packing up your kids, moving from Sweetwater, Texas to Empire, Nevada to Baltimore, in a ten-year period is very problematic with regard to that balance question. So it became, our head of manufacturing finally realized, “Hey, if we want to promote more women, perhaps we change that requirement. How do we get them to do temp assignments? Or how do we put them on different internships and not require them to pack up their family and move every three years in order to become a plant manager?” And lo and behold, the number of female plant managers—I don’t know what it is now because I’m not there anymore—but had gone up pretty significantly in a five-year period. So think about how you make it good for the company as well.
Julia Taxin: I agree with what Jennifer said. That’s spot on, and the only thing that I would add to those comments is that what I’ve learned over my time in venture has been with my male colleagues, both my partners at my firm and the CEOs that we’ve worked with over the years is being very open and transparent about what you can and can’t do. So when I first joined and then I, I started having kids, I would be working in all hours of the night, I’d be up with the baby and just trying to make it work. And then I learned boundaries. Let’s just be very realistic about what I can and can’t do in a day, and set expectations. And that was really important for a lot of our very young founders who don’t quite understand the fact that I have children at home and I’m also working.
And then also, “normalizing the pause” is what we call it at The Mom Project. The fact that women do sometimes step back from the workforce to have children or during the pandemic as well to help raise their children at this time or help in the home, making that normal that’s okay to see a year ago by in some of these resume. And I think historically that’s been targeted as maybe a negative, they took a year or two out of the workforce. Well, let’s normalize that and make that okay. So we really focus on that at The Mom Project. You don’t need to make an excuse as to why you left the workforce for two years.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful. We’ve got maybe round last questions here, what is driving women to leave the workforce? And what advice do you have for women trying to return to work after a career gap? I know you’d talked about networking really actively earlier, maybe just a couple of facts here, just to set the stage on why women are leaving. In September, as kids were going back to a lot of remote schooling, 1.1 million people in the US stepped out of the workforce or were fired, 80 percent of them were women. So just at the time when school is getting back online, a deeply disproportionate impact on women. We do know that when women are unemployed or step out of the workforce, they are unemployed for longer.
It is stickier. And as we project the return of the post-COVID economy, it’s going to take us a couple of years for all jobs to return, but it’s actually going to take two years longer for women and for people of color to recover to pre-COVID job levels of inequality. So and if you are a woman of color, three to four years. If you are a man of color with less than a college degree, same thing, three to four years. So that inequality is hurting us not just during COVID in terms of jobs, but also on the recovery. So we’d love to hear advice beyond networking for people coming back after a bigger break.
Alaina Anderson: I know that there are ... I feel like Booth has a program for kind of this reentering program. I would look for avenues that smooth your reentry, either pairing up with I think that Booth back-to-work program or looking at employers who have some focus in this regard, because I do think that there is kind of an institutionalized screening that penalizes people who have these gaps in their resume. And if you want to get back to work, you want to go for the low-hanging fruit and where the opportunities exist. So I would focus some resources and attention on those companies that have concerted efforts in that regard. And I know there are a few, and I know that Booth has resources in that regard.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful.
Jennifer Scanlon: One piece of advice I’ve given not just to people who have gaps in their resume and have taken time out of the workforce, but I also give this advice back to college grads. An area that we just don’t have enough well-trained people in is in project management. And it does not take ... I don’t want to say it doesn’t take a lot of work because it does to go out and get certified as a project manager. But I think most people who have had any element of time in the workforce probably have a number of qualifications that would help them get that certification.
And it is a great way into the door, through consulting firms, through different projects, through independent consulting, through companies hiring. It’s just something that I’ve seen every step of my career that those who have those project management skills do have a much better opportunity to land jobs, even despite gaps in their resume. So I would encourage people to think about what are those areas of expertise or skills that close the fact that there’s a gap of time on your resume.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful. Want to wrap it up with just one or two words of advice from each of you as we head back to our day-to-day lives during COVID hopefully with a light at the end of the tunnel. We’d love to start with you Alaina, on any kind of couple of words of parting advice and then Jennifer and Julia.
Alaina Anderson: I would say that invest in the resources that you need to be successful. I remember when I first thought about getting a cleaning service, I was ashamed to tell my mother because I thought she ... My mother worked and then she came home and cooked dinner, and then she helped us with our homework and then wash, rinse repeat every day. And when I told her sheepishly that I was going to get a cleaning service, she was like, “Are you kidding? You absolutely should have a cleaning service. I wish I could have done that when I was in your shoes.”
Invest in the resources you need, unburden yourself from judgment around that. I would say also advocate for yourself. So ask for the flexibility that you need, amplify other women’s voices when you’re able to, we need that and amplify this work. If you can spread this work and these risks around your workplace, I think that the findings are so potentially detrimental that they demand some sort of response. So, that would be my suggestion.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful, Jennifer.
Jennifer Scanlon: I’m going to add to that and I’m just going to say no guilt. Just to get over the guilt trip. The guilt over having a full-time nanny or a cleaning lady, or short cutting just anything. Time is the most precious commodity that any of us have. So don’t have guilt about finding ways to improve the quality of the time you have. The second thing I would say is I really benefited from having two very good friends that I made when my oldest daughter was in preschool and they became my good friends because they were two other working mothers whose girls were the same age as mine.
So we had something in common. We had coffee every single Saturday while our girls were in dance class for close to a decade. We still text each other frequently, if not daily. You need those friends, you need that voice of reason. And you need the person who looks at you and says, “Okay, I know they said this to you at work and you know what? They were right. So you better listen to them.” Or, “They were wrong and we’re going to pat you on the back and cheer you up.” But you need somebody, some few people who will be honest and direct and warm and a shoulder to cry on when you need it.
Julia Taxin: I’d echo those two things. I mean for me, grocery shopping takes a lot of mental energy. And so that is something that I just actually ask first my husband because he enjoys doing it. He does it online now. So finding those types of things are just mentally draining for whatever reason and outsourcing them. I echo the nanny as well if you can make it work. And then also becoming a mentor to somebody, even if you don’t think you’re “worthy yet of becoming a mentor.”
Finding a high schooler or even a middle schooler who’s looking to advance their career at some point, obviously and using them to develop that skill set, I think is really important. And so that’s something I started actually, when I was in college, was mentoring a high school student. It just creates a skillset and it starts the networking cycle for you as well at an early age.
Kweilin Ellingrud: Wonderful, thank you to our three incredible panelists for sharing your thoughts and insights today. Hopefully you can all give us feedback via the email survey that you’ll be receiving. And if you want any more of the research, that’s all available online on womenintheworkplace.com. Thank you. Have a wonderful day.
Steering through a Crisis
After detailing the study’s alarming findings about COVID-19’s economic effects on women, Kweilin Ellingrud, the senior partner leading much of McKinsey’s globally-focused gender equality research and the moderator of the event, asked how women can recover from the past year.
Until companies offer more flexible schedules that can accommodate women, we’ll continue down this path of inequality, Taxin said.
Panelist Jennifer Scanlon, ’92, the president and CEO of Northbrook, Illinois-based safety certification company UL, spoke about facing a global challenge.
Scanlon was six months into her job as CEO of the global company with 15,000 employees around the world when the crisis struck. An essential business, UL continued to operate, with Scanlon focused on ensuring the health and safety of employees and customers.
UL created a best-practice resource for its employees combining the company’s collective expertise with guidance from leading health organizations. And in response to the social unrest and the pain employees were feeling, she focused on psychological safety, scheduling “courageous conversations” with employee groups around the world, and rapidly accelerating the company’s D&I goals, continuing to build a diverse leadership team, she said.
Scanlon also made the decision to continue work previously started to overhaul UL’s corporate strategy. Now, a year later, the move has proved prescient as UL is building on its science-based core expertise in testing, inspection, and certification to grow the company by following its customers into adjacency businesses.
Yes, there was stress for her and her team, she shared, but UL has come out of the crisis stronger.
“2020 was a unique year to lean into your voice, Don’t underestimate the need for your voice at your company.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Step into Discomfort
The panelists also discussed how women can speak up to get the help they need. Alaina Anderson, ’06, partner and portfolio manager at William Blair & Company, said she was initially embarrassed to tell her mother she needed to hire a cleaning service for extra help at home—but she realized her concerns around admitting she needed help were unnecessary.
“Invest in the resources you need to be successful,” Anderson said. “Advocate for yourself.”
Anderson said she’s been advocating for herself since the start of her career. Often, she’s been the only woman or the only woman of color in the room—so in order to make herself and others more comfortable with her presence, she focused on being poised, prepared, and likable.
She changed the tone and texture of her voice, she altered her hair, and she felt herself shrinking. And then, Anderson said, she realized that she doesn’t need to change herself in order to be accepted as a woman or a person of color.
“I’m glad to be done with that phase,” Anderson said. “Stepping into discomfort is where a lot of growth has come.”
Over the past year, Anderson has faced even more discomfort. As the mother of two elementary-aged children who are e-learning, along with being a Black woman during a time of widespread conversations about racial justice, Anderson said she’s leaning into the discomfort.
“2020 was a unique year to lean into your voice,” Anderson said. “Don’t underestimate the need for your voice at your company.”
Keep Building Relationships
Responding to an audience question asking for advice for those starting their careers, Scanlon responded: “I have a senior in college, and I’ve been giving her and her friends this advice: Amp up your networking.” She also noted that help is available. “I’ve had two dozen of those calls in the last four months. We get it. We are all ready and willing to help.”
Taxin concurred: “Take every introduction. You never know who is going to connect you to the person who ends up hiring you.”
Maintaining strong bonds with friends is just as important, the panelists noted. “I made two very good friends who were also working mothers when my oldest daughter was in preschool,” Scanlon said. “We’re still friends today. We had coffee every Saturday while our girls were in dance class for over a decade. You need a few people who will be honest and direct and warm and a shoulder to cry on when you need it.”