by Celeste Palermo
“I have to go off video for a second to pull some chicken out of the freezer,” said my colleague, Brooke, at the start of a recent meeting. Melissa, another teammate, juggles teaching and tutoring her two kids in between a slog of back-to-back appointments; on occasion, I catch a glimpse of her providing muted side directives during a call. And Roxy, my boss Jen’s yellow lab, who I have come to know these past months, quietly stretches and snoozes in the background of our video meetings until Amazon drops off a package; then, she is the defender of the universe—loud, with the stamina of a canine Olympian. These happenings fill me with gratitude—truly, it is as if my Grinchy heart grows with each new example. Here’s why: They remind me I am not alone.
Brooke, Melissa and Jen are all senior leaders, successful by any measure; I learn from them daily. From the outside, one might think their Superwoman capes are politely tucked from view, but I have the privilege to see what others do not: They are juggling just like me. They are strong, capable—and tired, but also generous enough to let me in past the facade. This transparency has fostered an environment where I can bring my whole self to work, when quite frankly, like a garage-sale Ms. Potato Head, some parts might be missing.
The struggle is real. Working and parenting from home during COVID is a whole new kind of hard. It frustrates me to hear the statistic that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or opting out of the workforce due to the complexities and demands they are facing (source below). The realities of the pandemic are isolating, challenging and amplifying the stress on everyone. We have our businesses to tend to, our families, plus, plus, plus—all the grief and loss of normalcy, not to mention the cascading losses of health, business, and life.
The ripple impact of the pandemic is a wet dog shaking streams of uncertainty everywhere. It pushes us to raise the white flag; I get it. It is tempting to believe the high-gloss lie that others are coping better, and when you feel like you cannot do anything well, it is human nature to pare down.
In my career I have rationalized that if I do less, I’ll be able to claw back some semblance of success. Yet I have worked part-time, stayed home, run my own business, worked for a non-profit and now have a corporate leadership role. And the truth is, it has always been hard. Sure, the pandemic adds complexity and I need more under-eye concealer before my WebEx call, but the answer is not to opt out. We must realize we are not alone and to identify and recruit community support. Restarting a career or business post pandemic will undoubtedly be more difficult and it may collectively take women years to recoup the professional gains we’re sacrificing to “The Rona.”
I realize my team offers the kind of acceptance and inclusion we all seek in a workplace. This is seldom found on every team, much less in every company. But it does exist, and we can build that support for each other. If we lift the covers off our own lives, we can help others feel less alone, less like failures. If we are brave enough, like Brooke, to simply admit she’s quite literally frying up the chicken while she brings it home—it will galvanize the ranks of the COVID workforce. It will be the catalyst for laughter, but perhaps also even a culture shift. Knowing that someone else has similar struggles on their bike keeps me pedaling. Even though the wheels are wobbly and slow, I keep inching forward. We can gracefully remind each other, example by painful, and sometimes humorous, example, that while our challenges are unique, we all have them.
So, when one of my teen daughters sets off the fire alarm while making a grilled cheese during my video presentation and another sleepily walks across the background of my WebEx in her PJ’s, I just take a deep breath and remind myself: I am not alone.
(Source: Lean In, McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2020, page 6 Women_in_the_Workplace_2020.pdf (wiw-report.s3.amazonaws.com)
Celeste Palermo is Senior Director, Human Resources at Newmont Corporation and author of two books. You can visit her at www.celestepalermo.com