Aarti Shah 08 Mar 2021 // 9:30AM GMT
There’s a marked gravity to International Women’s Day in 2021. Take, for instance, some of the headlines from the last several months: “Enough Already: How The Pandemic Is Breaking Women,” “This is a Primal Scream” “Coronavirus Child-Care Crisis Will Set Women Back a Generation,” among many others. The pandemic has exposed the glaring inequities that make women vulnerable to economic instability and, even for the most privileged, the precarious support network that parents rely on is more tenuous than we ever imagined.
The numbers show just how devastating the past 12 months have been: in the US, four times as many women dropped out of the labor force in 2020 as men. And as The Guardian points out:
Every one of the 140,000 jobs lost in December belonged to a woman: they saw 156,000 jobs disappear, while men gained 16,000. But white women actually made gains, while Black and Latina women – disproportionately in jobs that offer no sick pay and little flexibility – lost out. Race, wealth, disability and migration status have all determined who is hit hardest.
As we know, women comprise of at least 70% of the PR industry’s workforce. We asked how the many crises of the past 12 months specifically impacted the women in our industry — across regions, seniority and race/ethnicity. The response was overwhelming: raw, heartfelt stories of adversity and inspiration poured in.
We received so many stories that we have turned this feature into a series that explores the various dimensions of the past 12 months: the anguish, the obligations, the actions, and finally, the aftermath.
Part 1, The Anguish: 'We Are Not OK'
“The past year has been challenging due to the impact of the pandemic and I’m very fortunate in the greater scheme of things. I do worry about my parents as we can’t travel to see them but they are keeping well and healthy as they wait for their turn for the Covid-19 vaccine in Malaysia so we stay in touch on WhatsApp and remind each other to stay safe. Other than that, the biggest challenges for me have primarily been around getting into a more healthy and manageable rhythm in the pressure of [work from home] and balancing that with housework and childcare without burning out.” — Azmar Sukandar, head of communications and society, Asia-Pacific, Diageo
“To say this past year has been challenging would be an understatement. It has tested my resilience, grit and at times my mental health. You may think this is because of the pandemic and getting acclimated to remote work, but that wasn’t what did it for me.
It was seeing Black people being murdered, it was seeing a rise in xenophobia and anti-Asian hate crimes, it was seeing Black and brown people being impacted by Covid-19 at disproportionate rates – the list goes on. And after all of this, I still got up every morning, aimed to maintain my peace, and got to work. Is this what life was like for the millions of working BIPOC professionals the last 12 months? I don’t know. But it was my reality.” — Jazmin Eusebio, account executive, Highwire PR
“We are not OK. I have not felt present or calm in over a year. Like for millions of working moms, I feel pressure every day to choose family or career, both suffering to a degree as neither is getting my whole self.
The pandemic morphed most of us into specialized roles that we've never imagined to take on all at once: mom, wife, home school teacher, business owner, nurse, therapist, cook, pandemic playmate, crafter, pretend dinosaur hunter. It also created every possible emotion all at once. Stuck at home and juggling it all during a lockdown charged an intensity that has never existed before. But the working moms' plight is not a new problem, especially in my industry. The pandemic just exposed the bias that exists against working mothers.” — Moon Vitiello, managing director, WeRaisePR
“My agency took a big hit — 25% of the workforce was furloughed and everyone else took a pay cut. I went part-time and was grateful because I got Covid and trying to recover was a shock to the system. I saw many of my colleagues lose loved ones to the disease. When you’re at a small agency, there’s a founder mentality, you don’t want to let the founder down. But when push-comes-to-shove, the founder prioritized right-sizing the business.” — Name Withheld, US-based agency leader
“Of course, it’s impossible to maintain balance now. I remember one day when I was starving, having missed breakfast and lunch. I planned to go out and grab dinner, and was waiting for my husband’s order while he was on a call. I sat for a while, in our dark living room, half awake, half asleep. I realized he was discussing ordering pens with someone from the marketing department he works with. I stormed over to him and said 'I’m saving the world, and you’re ordering pens? Can you just tell me what you want on your tuna sub so I can get my dinner?' Not my proudest moment as a supportive spouse." — Ellen Gerstein, senior director/digital communications and social media, Pfizer
“I was a part of the tribe who was OK working from home and not stepping out. Although it was the first time in 14 years, I missed being with my brother on his birthday. It was hard. I missed my family because I was away from my hometown, but I quickly rode the webinar wave. An insomniac person like me couldn't sleep so I started working more, reading more and binge-watching more. Basically all things that became lockdown trends were on my to-do-list. All locked up with my favorite person — my sister in our rented apartment in New Delhi.
Oh and I also celebrated my 30th birthday in lockdown. It became very difficult to date virtually though — being a single, workaholic, type-A woman who is turning 30 and works in PR. While some envied my productivity, what kept me going was bringing a smile to those who mattered to me — my family, my teams, my friends. However, I didn't realize that slowly I am losing track of my own mind.” — Pratishtha Kaura, communications professional.
"I saw many of my colleagues lose loved ones to the disease...You don’t want to let the founder down. But when push-comes-to-shove, the founder prioritized right-sizing the business" “The past 12 months have been such a roller coaster. A year ago I was at the top of my game, a Black female executive leading the North America business of a major international PR agency. I was in love with life and with my team and my career prospects. It was fun and exciting — a lot for a single mother of two to take on, but I had family support and no small amount of drive. But the world around me was not as much fun. The pandemic threatened not only my family support system, but also impacted the business I was so committed to leading. In addition, the political climate made me feel like a target; the increased hate rhetoric and racial tension surfaced a familiar and unwelcome element of fear into my world.
In California, no one thinks this should affect you. It isn't Alabama. But it isn't that simple. The looming election became all consuming, because my fear of the consequences of a different outcome for me and my family - and for all POC in this country - was real and overshadowed much of my life. I didn't think for a minute that the horrific treatment of undocumented aliens would stop there.
I couldn't sleep. I watched MSNBC until 2am every night, obsessively, then lay awake imagining my small children cold and alone in a cage. I didn't feel like I could talk about my distraction and anxiety and exhaustion with my boss; I WAS the boss. I was coaching people through their fear, but not acknowledging my own. But it was certainly affecting my performance. Then I lost my job. My role was eliminated to save money during Covid.” — Syreeta Mussante, PRSA Silicon Valley Board Member
“The day after lockdown was announced, I got a phone call from my agency letting me know that I was being let go. Packing up my desk in an empty room was an eerie premonition for the rest of the year. I was lucky enough that my parents took me back in during the first lockdown, but it didn’t stop the anxiety as more and more recruiters fed back cancelling previously arranged interviews announcing what was essentially an industry-wide hiring freeze.
Since I began my career, I hadn’t previously had a break between jobs and facing the rest of the pandemic jobless and aimless was a terrifying prospect. I even considered completely changing careers to find something, but luckily more PR jobs were advertised towards the end of the summer. I found a new role at an agency that only started in January 2020 and have actually ended up finding somewhere that is far better suited to me.” — Kat Riekemann, account manager, Words+Pixels
“The past 12 months have been intense. The volume of demands on working women each day increased just when we needed them to decrease so we could manage the mental stress of living through a pandemic.
Suddenly we were expected to appear on screen more than ever before just when we felt we didn't want to see anyone and had more of a face for radio. Work became more intense as we counseled anxious clients and provided more pastoral care for staff, yet our children were simultaneously placed in our care 24/7 to be fed, watered, entertained and... educated.
I've never lived my life at such a pace for so long and all I want now for myself is some peace and quiet, starting on Monday, when my boys go back to school and I'll be celebrating the achievements of all the amazing women who've helped me get through this year.” — Name Withheld, UK-based agency head
"I couldn't sleep. I watched MSNBC until 2am every night, obsessively, then lay awake imagining my small children cold and alone in a cage. I didn't feel like I could talk about my distraction and anxiety and exhaustion with my boss" “In the early days of Covid, I spent a lot of time in tears wishing I could be more involved in helping my boys (ages 8 and 11) through remote learning, while simultaneously being extremely grateful I had a great job. And then the civil unrest started, which was a reminder to stop feeling sorry for myself.
Now as the mother of two white boys, I remind them often that they are the most privileged class to live on this earth and that it is their duty and responsibility to use that position of privilege to help others. We had so many long walks through the neighborhood trying to talk about what was going on in a way they could process and use and it was hard, and I’m not sure I succeeded.” — Nichole Mullen, VP head of insights, Hotwire
“I’ve always known that being a Black woman carries weight, but this past year, that weight was heavier, and I felt it. I am now more chiefly aware that this weight I feel isn’t a burden, but the same sense of responsibility the elders in my family felt that spurred them to action and strengthened their resilience.
This mentality – and this responsibility – powered me the last 12 months. I instilled it across account work and initiatives, whether it was working with clients to establish equitable pay tiers across paid campaigns, or being the voice advocating to push ideas outside of the monolithic lens in which Black people and culture are viewed.” — Yasmeen Phillips, senior director, Hotwire
"Pressures that perhaps were always there and that come with running a comms business, were exacerbated. The responsibility to protect and help our people and our clients was and is incredibly real. And at home, I have two year old twins who have had a year of mum working from home. They want to talk to me about their day and they want me to spend time with them. It was incredibly difficult explaining that mummy would love to play Paw Patrol but she’s gotta get on a call with a CEO facing a crisis. Weirdly, they didn’t get it. And then comes the guilt. Why am I finding this difficult? Why can’t I do it all? Why can’t I be there for everyone? Which I still sometime have." — Jane Morgan, managing director, Golin HK
“All of the weaknesses of my job started to surface. If a relationship was neutral, or slightly negative, it became worse. If I had a weak spot, it was heightened. The stress I carried heightened all the negative things in my workplace and I was overwhelmed only living and working. I lived partially alone during that season and my main interaction was through my screen. All the misunderstandings, lack of face time, etc. piled on top of one another. Not to mention, I am an extrovert who wanted to socialize but also work through my thoughts in-person with coworkers. That's how my best ideas came about. I no longer had that. Everyone, coworkers, also seemed stressed, but everyone played it off like this was normal. Our new house-arrest.
In the media, all that mattered was Covid, social injustice, and the election. All other PR slowed down temporarily and it wasn't until I worked in healthcare tech PR for an urgent care center did I feel I was pushing valuable news to the media during an international crisis.” — Angela Baldwin, founder, Baldwin PR and Marketing
"The volume of demands on working women each day increased just when we needed them to decrease so we could manage the mental stress of living through a pandemic" “2020 was the year I learned what the word home really means...My lease expiration dovetailed with the growth of the pandemic and at the time so much was still unknown. The City of New York was in lockdown and we were left without a place to live. In less than 36 hours we had to pack up our lives and put everything we didn’t absolutely need into storage. We headed to NJ to live with family for what we thought would be two weeks until we could come back and find a new apartment. Two weeks became two months in NJ then four months in an Airbnb in New Paltz, then two more months in NJ and finally a short term rental back in NYC.
None of the temporary places we lived in 2020 could technically be called a home, but they all were. Everything I needed, everything I loved, was there and that made it home. I didn’t have my books, or my favorite winter sweaters, or the coffee mug I love but I had what I actually needed to feel safe and to feel home — my family, my dog, my health, my job. It was a wake up call to really think about my privilege and my priorities.” — Kara Silverman, managing director, Clarity New York
“In the last twelve months, I have been an intern, unemployed, working in student services and (finally) as an account coordinator at Hotwire. Post-grad life originally held stability and a positive outlook, but then, like most people, my plans were shaken up upon the close of my job and becoming unemployed. Once I became unemployed, I felt extremely stressed - I was competing for jobs across the country with not only my own 2019 fellow graduates, but also class of 2020 graduates. I eventually moved home and back in with family. After putzing around for a few months in a job that was just that, I was able to come onboard with Hotwire, giving me the most stability I have had in the last 12 months.” — Julia Landon, account coordinator, Hotwire
“The pandemic was one of the most isolating yet enlightening experiences for me — particularly since I gave birth to my second child smack dab in the middle of 2020. Ending 2019 by announcing my pregnancy, having had a successful year at work and feeling so close to my friends and family, I was so optimistic about 2020 and then everything imploded!
Immediately after the world was flipped upside down in March, I’d lost several of my clients due to budget constraints, I felt completely alone working from home while 6+ months pregnant, my doctor’s visits and ultrasounds (normally an exciting venture) were filled with dread, and the uncertainty of what the future would bring for myself and my unborn baby was like carrying around a heavy weight on my shoulders daily.” — Christa Conte, SVP & head of digital commerce US, Hotwire
"I’d lost several of my clients due to budget constraints, I felt completely alone working from home while 6+ months pregnant" “From anxiety about the future, to rage around racism, and a heavy dose of menopausal angst (and hot flushes that have saved us on the central heating), this year has been one heck of an emotional ride. But let me tell you, it is with the kindness, the giving and the camaraderie, of people in this industry, that I feel I have emerged stronger and more resilient. From zoomy drinks, to Clubhouse laughter, the support across comms has been phenomenal.” — Katy Howell, CEO, Immediate Future
“During complete lockdown, I found myself remembering the things that brought me joy as a kid. I started reading books again. I dove more into puzzles and played more games. I hadn’t realized it at first, but somehow having a career while mastering the ever-changing art of what we millennials like to call ‘adulting,’ seemed to push me away from hobbies and activities that gave me joy without a tangible benefit. I even found myself being able to focus more without being distracted. Because of that, my quality of life seemed to improve. I was more focused on exercising at home, I cooked more instead of dining out (allowing me to save money from spending those preposterous delivery app fees), and more importantly, my work ethic improved within my career.
I saw this especially during the moments following George Floyd and the BLM protest across the nation last summer. Because I had such a focus on my career with my improved mental state, I felt motivated to speak up as a women of color in an industry where I often find very few of us. While I knew other people of my community felt as if they shouldn’t have to be the teachers of racism and unconscious bias, I felt that denying my colleagues the chance to hear my voice would be a missed opportunity.” — Azizza Brinson, manager of media strategy, Hotwire
Additional reporting by Arun Sudhaman, Diana Marszalek and Maja Pawinska Sims.
Parts 2-4 — Obligations, Actions & Aftermath — will follow this week.