The frustrating challenge women are facing in the workforce
I was recently invited to speak on a panel discussing the pandemic’s impact on the future of work. As part of an all-women panel, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the host opened the conversation with the following sentiments, “In a time that demands empathy from leaders, this is the opportunity for women to truly shine.”
As someone who has studied Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in the workplace for well over a decade, the first question was thrown to me, which was, “why is empathy so important right now?”
I was prepared for the question. The challenge was that I couldn’t get past the framing of the conversation. Admittedly, I am not always great at choosing my battles. Although there was a voice in my head that said, “Let it go, Sara, just answer the question…”
The louder voice said, “Take that on, Sara.”
Here is why; the framing of the panel discussion highlights the expectation that women are empathetic. This may not seem like a big deal, but here is the challenge. Data shows time and time again that when men display empathy, it is seen as distinct and favorable leadership ability, yet it’s simply the expectation when women display it. This doesn’t mean that a higher level of empathy doesn’t translate into more effective leadership for women. It does. The problem is that demonstrating empathy is perceived as a baseline expectation for women and NOT a distinct leadership skill as it is for their male counterparts.
Let’s get clear on a few things. First, empathy in leadership is a skill – period. Are some people more naturally empathetic? Yes. However, to a be exceptionally good at it requires putting thoughtful effort into strengthening it.
Second many women in the workforce are experiencing an additional layer of pressure. As reported here, “women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate as men. The burden of parenting and running a household while also working a job during the pandemic has created a pressure cooker environment in many households, and women are bearing the brunt of it.” Emotional exhaustion has skyrocketed by almost 73% in women who are balancing work and home obligations.
Third, cognitive empathy is a labor-intensive competency to practice. It is incredibly challenging to demonstrate empathy when you are drained of energy. The brain science of empathy backs that up.
The problem occurs when women are perceived as not being empathetic. When this happens (because it will happen for all the reasons I just shared), it is held against women far more than when men display the same empathy-lacking behaviors in identical situations.
But before getting upset, it is important to acknowledge that those who evaluate women most harshly when there is a perceived lack of empathy, especially when it comes to recognizing the additional layer of pressure most working women are experiencing in the pandemic – are actually other women. Research shows that women hold onto anger and hurt longer when another woman breaks their trust versus a man doing so in the workplace.
This double standard is an extra THIRD layer of pressure for women in the workplace. As I was speaking at a women’s event, recognizing where we as women are inadvertently perpetuating it is an important place to start.
My suggestion is that women need to continue to support women and watch the double standard we have with one another. If we are frustrated by people expecting women leader’s primary strengths to be collaboration, empathy, and supportiveness, then we need to be careful not to punish women more harshly when those expectations aren’t met. When empathy is shown, we need to acknowledge it as a desirable leadership quality, regardless of gender. I believe this is a powerful way women can lift other women up.
“Be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown without telling the world that it’s crooked.”
The reality is, we all benefit from the empathy of our organizations, leaders, and colleagues, which means we all need to work on demonstrating empathy when people aren’t at their best.
Luckily, this response triggered a powerful and empathetic conversation across our panel.
Working on a book has meant I have needed to regularly remind myself of this. And I’m not going to lie, putting it in the context of pizza always makes me smile while also making it an easier reality to accept.
If you often find yourself overcommitted, here are three rules I hold myself accountable to when I need to say no to something:
Be quick to respond when your answer is no and allow the other person time to explore alternative options. It also challenges you to be more thoughtful and decisive. When we worry that we’ll disappoint people, we often procrastinate on making the decision AND delivering the response.
Be clear in your response. Another way we avoid disappointing people is by convoluting the response with a non-committal answer. Be clear in what you can and can’t do and then ensure you follow through. “Maybe later” and “let me see what I can do” response types are unclear and unfair to the person making the request. People are often most disappointed and angry when surprised, so take a no surprise policy.
Be kind in delivering your answer. It may not be your priority, but it is someone’s, so respond with graciousness and never underestimate the power of “thank you.”
The reality is that even after doing all three of these people may be disappointed, but chances are much higher that they’ll respect you and feel respected by you.
Demonstrating respect is the highest form of kindness.
Besides, treating others with respect (including yourself), has a much longer and lasting impact than simply trying to make everyone happy.
How many of you have uttered these words this week? It’s Christmas eve, and for many, that means closing the laptop and setting your out-of-office for at least a few days.
Although multiple things related to COVID-19 will be making this a harder holiday, there is a much less obvious threat to getting the break you need. That culprit is what I call the “might-as-well” mentality.
This thinking is our internal story that kicks at the moment we stop being busy. Here’s how this plays out – feeling a little bored, you think to yourself, “Well, since I can’t do the normal things I usually do over the holidays, I might as well get some work done.”
The problem is obvious; the minute you open your work email or go to the laptop, your tired brain is re-hooked on work.
Most counter-intuitive about this is that even though you – your brain – needs the break, your brain will try to lure you into your comfort zone of staying busy, feeling “productive,” and, believe it or not, feeling stressed.
This holiday, I want you to work very hard to resist the lure of this brain trap. One of the best ways to do that is to pre-plan some alternatives things to do instead of working when this thinking takes hold.
Start by putting ‘work’ things away. There is truth behind the saying “out of sight, out of mind.”
Second, make a list of things you’ve wanted to do when you have time and just as critical, make them easily accessible. Just as true is the idea “in sight, in mind.”
For me, spending the tail end of this year starting to work on a book has resulted in a lot of time sitting. It has also been very busy with virtual events. Fitting in regular exercise has been a commitment I have made to myself and followed through on. Unfortunately, to save time when I exercise, I am very guilty of skipping the cool-down and stretching part of things. To say I am feeling a little inflexible is an understatement. I have multiple different stretching videos ready to go when I am tempted to open up work and just “organize some files.”
Finally, don’t just dismiss this mentality. Learn to listen to the emotion driving this thinking.
Perhaps you are drawn to work because you like the feeling of accomplishing things. Perhaps you like learning, feeling challenged, or feeling connected to others. Before you jump into work, take 30 seconds to reflect on what you really want.
Look at your list and break it out into some of those categories.
If you feel like you need connection, who and how can you reconnect with people?
Need some intellectual stimulation? What is a biography you’ve wanted to read or listen to and haven’t had the time? Or maybe you just need a good fiction book to lose yourself in. PUT IT ON THE COFFEE table so it is easy access. The more accessible something is, the more likely that you’ll do it.
This is a great time to try new routines. Always wanted to try a mindful practice? Download an app and start the beginner’s program.
Remember, sometimes NOT having a plan and letting your brain relax is exactly what you need. If you have been in go-mode for the past nine months your brain will have a hard time slowing down. In this case, help your brain wind down. When the urge to open work kicks in try just stopping. For one minute slow down and take some nice slow breaths and do nothing. Rewiring your brain to not look for constant distraction and novelty takes some deliberate work, but it is worth it. Within a couple of days you will find this get easier.
Three points of caution before you go.
First, when you make your list, keep the activities small, or choose one larger project. If you list renovate the bathroom – that is too big! Perhaps, look for a new vanity or browse Pinterest for ideas are small steps that will positively distract you but also keep stress levels low.
Second, if you do need to work over the holidays, then be clear on when you are working – but then put things away when you are not. It isn’t always the quantity of time off that has the biggest impact; it is more often how you spend that time. The truth is, most are not that great at taking good restorative breaks.
Finally, please don’t hear this advice as being less passionate or driven. Both of these characteristics require energy. Think of this time as your opportunity to refuel those so you can take on 2021.
There was a lot throughout 2020 that was difficult and outside of your control. Take back the end of this year and close it out on your terms. Swap out the automatic “might as well” for the thoughtful “I choose to” mindset instead.
How to prioritize your time, energy, and to-do list with a set of simple questions
One of the most consistent questions I’ve been asked over the last eight months is, “With so much change, how do I handle everything?”
“Everything” may include adding the title of teacher to your list of daily responsibilities. Or perhaps it’s simultaneously managing on-site and virtual relationships. Or, balancing the nuances of being both married and home-office coworkers with your spouse for the first time.
Regardless of the specifics, we can all agree that what is required of us has changed and grown. And yes, different strategies are needed to meet the increased demands we are facing today.
The problem is we focus on finding strategies to help us manage it all without considering if it all actually has to be managed.
Clarifying these two questions is critical because your brain isn’t naturally designed to distinguish between the two under stress.
In fact, the more stressed you feel, especially when that stress is experienced for long periods, the more your body attempts to meet the stress demands by pumping additional cortisol reserves into your system. Cortisol alters your neurological and physiological functioning, priming your body and attention to stay on high alert. You may feel this physically by tense muscles, and emotionally by heightened levels of irritation and lowered levels of patience. As a result, even the smallest things trigger an outsized reaction as your cortisol loaded brain responds by amplifying the significance of the threat while simultaneously awfulizing the negative consequences if it is left addressed.
In a life or death situation, this is ideal, but in everyday environments, not so much. The unintended consequence is that your brain struggles to apply a sense of proportionality to experiences making it difficult to distinguish meaningless and mundane events from the urgent and important.
As a result, EVERYTHING appears to require your immediate attention and best efforts.
For example, when stress runs high and energy runs low your brain may treat your kids instance on wearing their Halloween custom to virtual school (even though it’s not Halloween), with the same urgency as needing to follow up with your insurance agent to understand changes to your health plan and what that means in the time of COVID.
Chances are that if you’re reading this, it’s because your natural response is to dig in and try to do it all. Chances are even higher that this approach has left you feeling both exhausted and perpetually locked in a cycle of never ending overwhelm.
Breaking that cycle requires acknowledging that both time and energy are finite resources. Therefore a strategy will be most useful if it helps you focus on regulating your energy and maximizing your time. This approach is the difference between feeling like you need to manage it all and determining what in fact, needs to be managed.
The next time it feels like the world’s to-do list is smothering you, try practicing the 7×7 Rule in response to overwhelm. Ask yourself these seven questions:
Will this matter in: 7 years, 7 months, 7 weeks, 7 days, 7 hours, 7 minutes, 7 seconds from now?
Does simply asking these questions solve the problem? No.
Does it cross things off your list? No.
What it does is help you put things into perspective, differentiate the meaningful from meaningless, prioritize where to put your time, attention, and how much emotional energy to give. These provide the clarity on what to take action on first.
The “Rule” of this strategy is not to give more time or energy than the amount of time it will matter. In other words, if it won’t matter in a week from now, don’t treat it as something that will matter seven months from now.
Your child wanting to wear their Halloween costume probably won’t matter in seven seconds from now because chances are they aren’t the only one. Let this one go – low energy input, low time input.
Ensuring you have the right health insurance – a much more important spend of time and energy.
Some situations, conversations, reactions, and decisions will have a lasting impact, so divert your best resource to those situations. This is not to say that small things shouldn’t bother you or aren’t worth reflecting on. They absolutely are, and you should use your emotional reactions as information to assess why that situation impacted you the way it did…and then respond in an equally measured way.
Not only is the Rule of 7×7 helpful in the moment, it is a skillful way to keep yourself in-check while preparing for a high pressure situation. This is especially powerful if you are a perfectionist. Sometimes good enough is actually good enough!
It is also a more structed way to reflect on stressful situations, particularlyif you have one of those critical brains that love to analyze your reactions to the day’s events just as your head hits the pillow.
I still don’t have the answer to how to do everything, and unfortunately, I don’t think that answer is out there. Instead, shift your question’s focus to ask yourself how you can use your time and energy the best way today.
Why it’s time you put the “push through” mindset away.
If you are one of those people who can get focused quickly and maintain concentration even while distractions are competing for your attention, this article may not be for you.
If you are great at proactively scheduling breaks into your calendar and taking those breaks throughout the day, keep doing what you’re doing.
If on the other hand, you find your legs going numb from sitting too long, your eyes crossing from staring at your screen and you’ve moved your coffee maker onto your desk to save getting up throughout the day. And still find yourself exhausted and somehow further behind on your most crucial work, then this article is definitely for you.
Before COVID-19, the research arm of my company, BrainAMPED, uncovered some interesting data. We found that leaders who proactively build breaks into their day (and took them), self-assessed themselves as being more focused throughout the day, less tired at the end of the workday, and in the case of having a partner at home, felt more present with them outside of work hours.
None of that was surprising. The data on working in 90-minutes cycles followed by a break is well documented. What was most surprising was that the difference between leaders who were scored as being “good” and those being “great” by their manager, direct reports, and their partners at home, wasn’t dependent on the quantity or length of breaks. Instead, it was much more connected to the quality of the breakstaken throughout the day.
Our research shows that high quality breaks consistently have five key elements. I’ve organized them into an easy to remember mnemonic, we call them P.O.W.E.R. breaks. These are short (typically 5 minutes at the low end and an thirty minutes at the high end), reset breaks taken throughout the workday.
Let’s look at the key elements of a P.O.W.E.R. break:
P: Proactive Pause
By far, the biggest difference between those that took breaks throughout the day and those who didn’t was if they proactively scheduled them and diligently worked to keep them free, even when a request came in that would overlap.
When asked why people don’t take breaks throughout the day, even when they knew they are helpful, the most consistent answer was, “because I was too busy.” This is all a matter of brain science. The longer you work, the less time it will feel like you have to take a break. This is because your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), the part of your brain that helps you keep things in perspective, fatigues when constantly engaged – and is less able to recognize when a break would be most beneficial.
The second key piece is that it is a “Pause.” This means you “pause” doing work. If you schedule a 15-minute break following two meetings and you fill that time checking email, you have proactively scheduled a work execution break – not a pause break. The goal is to give that hard-working PFC a break allowing it to function best and therefore serve you best.
This element is about consciously slowing and deepening your breath to oxygenate your brain and body. If you’ve worked with me before, you know that “Oxygenate” is a part of many strategies.
The reason for this is simple – it is necessary. For many of you, much of the day feels fast-paced, pressure-filled and demanding. This stress kicks in the ‘fight-flight’ system resulting in quick, shallow breathing.
Slowing down and deepening your breath activates your vagus nerve. This nerve bundle is critical to turning off the ‘flight-flight’ stress response system. It instead activates the relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.
To build this into your reset break, take a minute or two and just focus on taking some slow breaths. When done throughout the day people report lower frequency of headaches, less muscle tension and more energy.
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, one of the biggest contributors to dehydration is immobility. When you are sitting most of the day away, water delivery to the cells is slowed which in turn decreases the flow of waste particles out of those cells – dehydrating the system and increasing the feeling of fatigue.
This is often further exacerbated by attempting to get that ‘second wind’ by replacing a glass of water with a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to further dehydrate you.
But it’s not just that you feel tired. Because your brain functions via electrical impulses between synapses, the brain requires water to serve as the conduit. When you are dehydrated the connection between these synapses slows down impacting on your ability to concentrate and think in a nimble way.
Simply adding in more water throughout the day will have a huge impact on energy, focus and attention.
If your initial reaction is, “I don’t have time to exercise in the middle of the day!” rest assured, I am not suggesting that. In the context of a P.O.W.E.R. break, think of exercise as simply standing up, extending your limbs – moving your body.
However, if you want to amplify the impact of your breaks, add in some actual exercise that will increase your heart rate such as brisk walk. There is a reason people often say “I’m going for a walk to clear my head.” It is because the brain is optimized when we move. Focus on adding additional movement to your day, especially if you attend a lot of virtual meetings (because you don’t even need to walk to those ones!).
Now that you’ve proactively disengaged from work, taken some breaths, sipped some water, and moved your body, now it’s time to get back to work. Before diving back in, use that now rested PFC to re-evaluate your approach in terms of time, energy and attention. .
This can be done by asking some simple questions such as, is this a priority? Would a phone call be a better option? Who should I engage in this decision or communicate my decision to? Is this the most impactful work you could be doing at the moment? Is there a better way?
Who hasn’t finished a day and wondered where the day went and what was actually accomplished.
When busy, most people become reactive focusing on the moment. As a result, they end up prioritizing answer emails and focusing on low value, easy-to-complete tasks. This is inevitably at the cost of high-impact, high value, strategic work. A rested brain will question your choices, a tired brain will not.
The P.O.W.E.R. break strategy is simple. Executing on it may not be easy. Your day will fill up and it will feel like you don’t have time. Remember, these are exactly the times you need a break the most.