By Emily Blobaum, Fearless editor

A few weeks ago, I published takeaways from Iowa State University’s Women’s Week series. Last month on the other side of the state, the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa hosted a similar series, focusing on topics including work-life management, women in STEM, mental health and women on corporate boards. 

Recordings of the sessions are available on the Tippie College of Business’ YouTube channel, but if you’re strapped for time, here are six takeaways:

The pandemic has had a large negative effect on mental health 

In news that should be no surprise to anyone, the American Psychological Association found that the pandemic has had a large negative effect on mental health

Key survey findings include: 

  • Two in three Americans said they have been sleeping more or less than they wanted to since the pandemic started. 
  • Nearly 1 in 4 adults reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress during the pandemic.
  • Nearly half of parents said the level of stress in their life has increased compared with before the pandemic.
  • Gen Z adults (46%) were the most likely generation to say that their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic, followed by Xers (33%), millennials (31%), boomers (28%) and older adults (9%). 

In a session titled “The pandemic and mental health, one year in: What we’ve learned and what can help us move forward,” participants were asked to submit words to describe their experience of the last year. 

Common descriptions were “exhausting,” “uncertain,” “overwhelming,” “sad,” “challenging,” “isolated,” “transformative” and “stressful.”

In her presentation, Kristin Wurster, staff psychologist at the Tippie College of Business, said 1 in 4 essential workers were diagnosed with a mental health disorder. She said company leaders have a responsibility to support their employees especially now, and can do so through clear communication, offering flexibility and accepting that work may not continue at the same level as before the pandemic. 

Additionally, Wurster stressed the importance of cultivating self-compassion. 

Think about how you treat your friends and young kids when they’re upset about something they did or didn’t do in comparison with how you treat yourself when you mess up, she said. “We are harsh and unforgiving with ourselves.” 

Work-life balance is a commonly used metaphor. But there are better ways to approach it, and it starts with how you phrase it 

When describing how you balance your job and your life outside of work, Beth Livingston, assistant professor and faculty director of the Dore Emerging Women Leaders Program at the Tippie College of Business, prefers to use the terms “managing,” “juggling” and “integrating” because those frame it in an active way. 

“The language we use is important because it starts to get filtered into the goals that we make for ourselves and our companies, then that trickles down to the practices and policies we put in place,” she said during a panel titled “Integrating work and life: What does the future look like for work life management.” 

Think of separating the two spheres by using the framework of boundaries. Some people prefer to integrate their work and personal lives, and allow work to interrupt family time or vice versa. They may text family while at work, or answer an email while at their kid’s soccer game. Other people prefer to keep their work and personal lives separated into defined blocks of time. This group of people, called separators, use physical space and schedules to keep the different aspects of their life separated. 

The point is, there’s no “right” way to balance the two spheres, but what matters is that you feel as though you have a sense of control over how (and whether) you’re able to separate them. 

Pre-COVID, offices and workplaces were often at a different location than places of residence. That physical boundary disappeared for many in March 2020, which then led to many people feeling like things were out of their control. When you’re not in control, you experience higher levels of stress, Livingston said. 

Thus, Livingston discussed the importance of having people feel as though they’re in control of their schedules again when we return to a sense of what was normal pre-pandemic. She suggested leaders ask this question: “How is _____ helping our employees feel as though we trust them enough to give them control over how they do their jobs?” 

Email is a useful tool, but be wary of its influence 

Email shouldn’t be used as a signal for how fast people can respond, Livingston said. 

Relating back to how you manage your work and your life, she recommended being clear about boundaries and what people should expect from you. For example, “if you don’t hear from me in ___ hours, email me again,” or “I don’t respond during ____ time.” 

If you are a person who blurs traditional boundaries of work and life, Livingston recommended using this email signature to emphasize that you don’t expect others to work the same way. 

She suggested: “If you receive this email outside of traditional working hours, it is because I am working flexibly in a way that works for me. I respect the working patterns of others, and thus I do not expect replies out of traditional working hours. Thank you and stay well.” 

(Another option that I saw online recently was “My working day may not be your working day. Please don’t feel obliged to reply to this email outside of your normal working hours.”)

Flexible work policies are necessary as we return to “normal” 

Throughout the last year, we’ve seen a mass exodus of women across many industries leaving the workforce as a result of the pandemic, partly due to child care issues. 

To effectively welcome women back into the workplace, Livingston stressed the need for implementing policies that continue to allow for flexibility in schedules. Beyond that, it really boils down to recognizing that people work differently. 

“Working from home during the pandemic should not be considered as the normal work-from-home setup, because we were forced to do it. What do people want? What allows them to have control? What works best for you isn’t what works best for everyone.” 

There is a need for a “critical mass” of women in leadership positions

Representation of women in leadership positions is far from equal, especially in fields of finance. While women hold 21.5% of all Russell 3000 directorships, women hold just 6% of all CEO positions at S&P 500 companies

Several different panelists in different webinars discussed the need for more women in leadership positions, alluding to the notion that a critical mass of women is necessary in order for there to truly feel a difference.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill into law that requires publicly held companies whose headquarters are in the state to include board members from underrepresented communities. This law piggybacks off of a similar law passed in 2018 mandating that all boards have at least one woman represented. 

In a panel discussion about women serving on corporate boards, Janice Reals Ellig, CEO of the Ellig Group, said that although she doesn’t believe in quotas or mandates, she is glad that California used that strategy to get the ball rolling. 

“Progress has been too slow. Companies have not been intentional or focused [on gender diversity], and that has to change.”

Jennifer Marietta-Westberg, principal at Cornerstone Research, said one of the first challenges is finding women who are interested in holding leadership positions and working in fields that are still traditionally dominated by men, like STEM. 

We don’t want to force women into fields that they don’t want to be in, but there is a need to expose women to opportunities in STEM through education and training, she said.

Reject the idea that you need to be perfect 

In a panel discussion featuring women in STEM, Eden Simmer, head of global trade equity at Pimco, said that imposter syndrome is a very present barrier and because of that, advocating for yourself can be a hard skill to learn.

“We talk about the pool and the pipeline all the way down to elementary school,” Simmer said. “But you’re not going to have that pool if women feel the need to be absolutely perfect to raise their hand to do something.” 

Imposter syndrome, or the inability to believe that your success is deserved as a result of your work ethic and skills, is a barrier that many women face. One study found that 75% of executive women have experienced imposter syndrome at various points throughout their careers. 

Women have to get past perfectionism, Marietta-Westberg said. “We need to hone the ability to take criticism because it’s necessary to move forward.” 

1 Comment

Amy Kristof-Brown · April 19, 2021 at 3:06 pm

Thank you for attending and summarizing these important take-aways from our Tippie Women’s Summit! If readers are interested in exploring the topics in more detail, the links to all the webinars are available on our Youtube channel.

Also on that channel are some of our monthly webinars, including a terrific session on Toxic Bosses by Professor Stephen Courtright. Our new webinar format has allowed us to connect with thousands of people across Iowa and across the country. We hope to see you at an upcoming event! – Dean Kristof-Brown

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