Women and Working from Home: How To Prevent Downshifting
By Shawna Ryan, T-Mobile Stories
“We are seeing it in the chat, people saying ‘I’m drowning, I’m struggling, I’m overwhelmed.’ I’m sure we have all used that language in one way or another.”
Maxie McCoy, a women’s leadership expert and author of the book You’re Not Lost, took a moment to address the comments flooding in from more than one thousand people logged into T-Mobile’s new “Intersections” speaker series that was held recently. The virtual program was created by the company’s Women’s & Allies Network (WAN) as part of its latest renewed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts after its merger with Sprint earlier this year, which skyrocketed the WAN group’s membership to over 17,600.
The purpose of the event was to explore how employees’ identities (and current realities) shape their experiences at work. And the premiere topic, “Women and Working from Home: How to Prevent Downshifting,” clearly struck a chord with the audience. While the network had previously been focusing on creating career development opportunities for hundreds of employees through dozens of events nationwide, the term “downshifting” suddenly became a common obstacle after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many employees to work from home. Suddenly, it became less about being aware of available opportunities and more that they felt unable to take them.
Women have been forced to pull unsustainable double shifts since March, and it's reflected in labor numbers this year. Since February, women’s participation in the labor force has been falling, with 4.5 million fewer women employed in October than a year ago, compared with 4.1 million men. And with mothers being three times more likely to stay home than fathers, businesses being shuttered by the pandemic isn’t the only reason for those unemployment numbers.
“These circumstances are taking an unprecedented toll on women,” said McCoy, who referenced other staggering statistics from a recent report created by McKinsey & Company called “Women In The Workplace 2020” that are hard to ignore.
- 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September, four times the rate of men.
- Mothers are three times more likely than fathers to stay home.
- One in four women are considering “downshifting” their careers.
- Three out of four women referenced burnout as the main reason for downshifting.
Downshifting can be characterized by an employee’s decision to stay in a lower-paying job, accept less prominent roles or leave their employment altogether. Historically for women it’s been the natural result of a lack of affordable childcare solutions. That reality was noticeably paused during World War II when women were needed to replace jobs left by men fighting overseas and a federally subsidized network of childcare facilities was established. It’s been a long time since that aid ended, and recent post-pandemic labor numbers show the risk of downshifting now weighing most heavily on low-income and minority women, especially in the service industry.
And for many of those women who aren’t dropping out in other fields, like the panelists in T-Mobile’s virtual event, that downshift is revealing itself in the way they and their female colleagues show up to work — not raising their hands nor actively taking a seat at the table as a means of survival until this pandemic passes.
“There is an opportunity for those unofficial mentorship spaces,” said Nathasha Smith, a Customer Care Closed Loop Manager who moved from a call center in Virginia to working from home with a teenage son in remote school, when asked how she’s leveraging the perks of a virtual work environment to combat the risk of isolation. “There’s an opportunity to have a conversation with new people or get support from someone even if they don’t realize they’re helping me in a space I might need – that’s the allyship I see.”
“Inclusion relies on allyship and success partners in the workplace,” added Shwetha Kamala, an IT Vendor Manager. “We have regular check ins to ask how we can help each other with our own unique challenges. It helps to ask for help. It helps to say I am overwhelmed.”
The panel discussed how leaders, teammates and allies can specifically support women within T-Mobile by sharing their tactics to solve the problems they face:
- Normalize Blending: Set expectations with teammates, managers and even yourself that the personal and professional worlds will inevitably blend and sometimes it can feel uncomfortable. Hiding the truth of the current environment will only expedite burnout.
- Lean In & Lean On: Regular check-ins with teammates where transparent dialogues about the challenges that are happening at home and impacting work processes are necessary to create sustainable plans. And managers need to help clear the pathways to those honest discussions without fear of backlash for the employee.
- Intentional Actions of Self Care: Adding more things to your to-do list when you find an open 10 minutes in your day does not make you more productive in the end. Finding ways to focus on your mental, physical and emotional well-being are investments that create exponential personal as well as professional benefits.
If there were a motto that rang true for all the women on the panel, employees of diverse backgrounds and roles within the company, it would be that work-life balance during the pandemic is a fallacy at this point.
Many women commonly reference an inequality in the household and childcare responsibilities, which, when faced with the closing of childcare centers and a move to remote schooling, begets an inequality in the workplace.
Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for housework and caregiving during the pandemic. It’s required women to create arduous individual solutions to solve structural problems. According to the Census Bureau, a third of working women suddenly unemployed in 2020 said they downshifted because of child care demands. As schools shuttered earlier in the year in an effort to flatten the curve, most families were saddled with finding affordable care for kids glued to their school’s e-learning schedules at home. When that couldn’t happen, far fewer men cited having to make the difficult decision to choose family over career. Only 12 percent of unemployed men in the same age bracket to be exact.
And the divide isn't just being widened between the genders. Since June, job growth for married women has decreased by 0.3 percent, while job growth for single women has increased by 7.6 percent.
“We as a country typically think that for some reason, individual caregiving is just a personal issue because someone decided to have a family or decided to have kids, but that is just absurd,” said McCoy. “It’s a social problem. And the health of our families and health of us directly impacts the health of an entire society.”
The panelists, who agreed that leaving their jobs would not even be a viable economic option for them, admitted the only way they feel they could maintain their lead roles in the home and the home office was to normalize the daily mixture of the personal and professional with their entire teams. There’s no hiding one from the other during neatly separated hours. They had to exist in parallels during the day.
“Interestingly, when my kindergartener was in another room when I was in a meeting or if my infant was being handled by my husband, my mind was constantly wondering what was happening,” said Kamala. “What I’ve observed is having them in the same room as me while I was working put me more at ease than having them outside. I think it’s about setting this expectation with my team that, ‘Hey, this has got to happen. These two lives are going to blend for me.’”
And if a work-life balance doesn’t exist anymore, it means things will feel off-kilter at any given moment without warning, and that can be incredibly vulnerable for anyone. The number of hours that parents lose each work day due to stress, anxiety and caregiving is estimated at 3.1.
“It’s like a rubber band, and sometimes we need to focus more on work and sometimes more on life,” echoed Nelly Pitocco, VP of Solution Engineering and Innovation at T-Mobile for Business. “The key is not to break that rubber band.”
Not breaking the rubber band takes a lot of effort and is having a palpable toll on the mental health of other women still trudging on. All panelists agreed that if you can’t establish boundaries between work and life right now, you’ll need to find a way to create a new space that you can still control. Often that space comes in the form of practicing self-care.
“It’s taking moments for yourself and creating those new lines of separation to find a moment to breathe, like by taking a walk,” said Pitocco.
Many of the panelists admitted this was difficult for them as it might feel counterproductive to completing an already overloaded day.
“I would say that with all of this change happening, the thing I had to change was self-care,” said Smith. “It has to be intentional. Things that were just for me that I could enjoy and allowed me space to be by myself.”
Burnout Is The New Normal
One particularly concerning part of the McKinsey Report, McCoy pointed out, warns that the COVID-19 crisis could set women back half a decade if companies aren’t addressing the likely underlying causes of stress and burnout.
It’s something that Pitocco says she takes very seriously. As a VP, she believes it has to start with leaders acknowledging that employees may want to follow through with their professional trajectory, but at this moment in time would be doing so at the risk of their mental and emotional wellbeing.
“I had a situation recently where I’m integrating two teams, I have the solution engineering and architect team … and with integration efforts underway, I launched a field advisory council. We sent out the call, ‘Hey, we need some volunteers to do this. It’s a stretch assignment. It’s a good opportunity to give visibility.’ And I hate to report that I didn’t have any women volunteer.”
Pitocco says she was immediately concerned. As a VP with two teenage sons in remote school under the same roof, she knew that the burnout she experienced was being felt by her female reports. Announcing a council of all men was foreboding of the risks at play in this new normal.
“I did not go back and ask them directly because I didn’t want to exert that pressure, but I checked on them,” she explained. “Every now and then I’ll just send an email or a call to one of the women on the team … just so they know that they have support and I can’t expect more from them right now because, honestly, maybe they just don’t have it to give.”
It’s a tactic that Debby Roseman, a Senior Planning Manager in Customer Care, said can make all the difference in how many women wind up leaving their jobs. It's an example of how women business leaders, many of them working mothers, are leading the way by recognizing there is no true "return to work" for women whose children are still at home. As someone who also cares for her two special needs children and octogenarian parents, Roseman says burnout is always at the doorstep.
“I’m going to be really honest,” said Roseman, “there are times when I’m just like, ‘I don't want to get out of bed today.’ I just want to stay there … but on my team I know when one person doesn’t have the strength, there are other people filling in to kind of lift them up. So, when you’re talking about reaching out to your teammates, the women on your team who might be struggling, there is nothing more important that a leader can do than to provide that understanding and the space needed and the resources needed in that moment.”
It’s an observation supported by the hundred-plus comments that flooded the chatbox during the panel discussion, many of which pinpointed a need for support systems women say are necessary in order to navigate a difficult new normal without putting their professional roles on the back-burner.
“I am a single mother working from home with two elementary students working virtually and really struggling with the blur of work and life.”
“I am the only woman on my team, and sometimes I also feel a sense of guilt because I am the only one on my team that is obviously experiencing ‘burn out.’”
“I am so grateful for these panelists. I literally felt alone.”
“I’ve been in this meeting for like 10 minutes and I’m getting teared up.”
“Thank you all for your transparency. It helps us to know that we are not alone.”
The Path Forward
Last year T-Mobile signed a groundbreaking, multi-year, $25 million investment and partnership with civil rights organizations to deepen its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in every aspect of its business. As part of the agreement, T-Mobile formed an external Diversity and Inclusion Council comprised of business and civil rights leaders to advise the company in their DE&I efforts. Of the more than 80,000 employees at the post-merger T-Mobile, 30,000 participate in the company’s DE&I Employee Resource Groups which focus on building inclusive and allied spaces for all employees.
And the company’s inclusion efforts are charting a path forward with panel events like this one.
“Knowing we are not alone in how we feel can be cathartic and, in this case, opened the door to supporting each other by sharing tips and strategies beyond the hour-long virtual panel and onto Slack,” said Pitocco after the event. “I hope we will continue the conversation. Sometimes lending an ear can make all the difference.”
By actively exploring ways to open up the dialogue towards understanding differences, a clearer light is shined on the ways T-Mobile says it can support people experiencing a disproportionally negative affect from this pandemic. In fact, 24 percent of the company’s Women & Allies Network are men. Take a closer look at that chatbox for the event and you’ll find them reacting as well.
“Thanks for letting me listen. I learned a lot today.”
“It’s so beneficial for me to hear and learn from everyone’s perspectives. Helps me be the best support for an equitable and inclusive environment. Thank you to this entire panel for sharing your experiences and stories. This has been so valuable.”
“I’ve learned so much from listening to this discussion!”
“This is so powerful, thank you!”
McCoy says though the realities of how this pandemic is affecting people differently based on their unique backgrounds can feel insurmountable, there are lessons to be learned here on how to keep going in the face of these obstacles. While the pandemic has exposed a weakness in this country concerning how we support women — especially caretakers — it’s companies like T-Mobile that are taking intentional actions to open the dialogues to expose and then address those inequities that are setting themselves apart from the pack. By shedding light on those differences for others to learn how they can be better allies helps remove the stigma felt by those who are hiding their burnout — a burnout they can’t solve alone.
“Intentional employers are filling the void as best they can,” said McCoy after the event. “Ones who see their employees as more than employees — as humans — and have made the choice at every turn to open up hard conversations, provide resources and see these challenges for what they are: really, really, really, challenging."