Five takeaways from a recent Fearless panel discussion 

By Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

The ongoing pandemic and economic challenges have had an effect on everyone, but especially women. Experts have indicated that burnout and other mental health challenges will be issues that women will deal with this year as they navigate through work and life. 

Last year, Business Record Editor Emily Barske and I hosted a virtual discussion with four female leaders across the state. We asked for their insight into the top issues that women will face in the next year and what we can focus on to collectively support women.

We talked with Renee Christoffer, president and CEO of Veridian Credit Union; Beth Livingston, faculty director of the Dore Emerging Women Leaders Program and assistant professor at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa; Dawn Oliver Wiand, president and CEO of the Iowa Women’s Foundation; and Toyia Younger, senior vice president for Student Affairs at Iowa State University.

Here are five ways individuals and organizations can support women’s advancement and achievement in 2022. 

To reduce burnout and slow the rate of women leaving the workforce, create flexible work policies and allow autonomy over the way work gets done. 

The 2021 Women in the Workplace report from Lean In and McKinsey found that women are more burned out than they were a year ago, and that the gap in burnout between women and men has nearly doubled. 

Livingston argued that giving women control over how and where their work gets done is the “biggest weapon we can wield against the epidemic of burnout we’re seeing.”

“Burnout isn’t just stress. We’re all stressed. … Burnout for me is really a bone exhaustion where you’re doing the same things and nothing is changing and you have no control over it,” she said.

Even pre-COVID, women were desiring more control and autonomy over the way they work and run their family, Livingston said. “Give women a choice and trust that they know what’s best for them.” 

Younger said that in order for companies to be competitive, they must offer flexibility – a sentiment many others have shared and the incoming workforce is expecting.

Consider the real reasons why gender parity in leadership positions hasn’t been achieved yet. 

Fearless reported in 2020 that women hold 30% of executive-level leadership positions in Iowa. That rate has risen only slightly in the last 10 years.

Reasons for that disparity vary, but Livingston urged a reexamination of the actual causes behind the numbers. Is it due to individual choice or barriers, like not wanting to lead or not being assertive enough? Or is it because of institutional or systemic barriers, like discrimination or the way the workplace operates?

Organizations must look for these misalignments if they want to change, Livingston said.

Christoffer added that it’s important that women can see a path to success at your organization. 

“It starts with an inclusive environment, making them feel wanted at the table,” Christoffer said. “What benefits are we providing to make your life easier?” 

Place a priority on mental health and work to destigmatize it. 

About 1 in 5 adults experienced mental illness in 2020, yet only 46% of them received treatment. The pandemic has only increased symptoms of anxiety and depression

Women are uniquely affected, Younger said. “We don’t have an opportunity to break down and lose it sometimes because we’re the ones that are trying to hold everything together.”

All panelists agreed that in order to properly address mental health concerns of those you love and work with, it’s important to destigmatize it and make it OK for people to come to you for help. 

Mental health and well-being are intertwined with productivity and performance, Livingston said. “The companies and individuals that recognize that have the opportunity to create change.”

Take advantage of opportunities to be a mentor and co-conspirator. 

The Iowa Women’s Foundation in 2016 identified a lack of mentorship as a key barrier to women’s success and economic self-sufficiency. 

“Women don’t just automatically mentor … we don’t see ourselves as mentors,” Oliver Wiand said. “It’s important that we take advantage of opportunities to mentor. Don’t wait to be asked.”  

Just as important, though, are people who work alongside you every day who are in your corner and who support and uplift you.

Younger briefly shared her experience with being in a position where she’s often a “first” and an “only.” She’s the first Black woman to serve in her role at Iowa State, and is the highest-ranking person of color on campus. 

That means, she said, she often has to stop and think about if she speaks up, are people going to think she’s the angry Black woman at the table?

Good allies and co-conspirators make space for you to be your full, authentic self, Younger said.

Address the child care crisis. 

There are multiple facets to the child care crisis in the state. About a quarter of Iowa’s population lives in a child care desert. An Iowa family earning a median household income spends an average of 12% of their income on center-based child care — higher than the national 7% affordability benchmark. 

Furthermore, child care workers are quitting in droves and providers are closing their doors, which means parents have to find care for their children elsewhere – if they can find any at all. 

“If we don’t address the child care crisis that we’re dealing with in our state, more women … are going to be leaving the workforce in greater numbers than they already are,” Oliver Wiand said. 

Catch a replay of the full discussion on YouTube.

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