Aarti Shah 09 Mar 2021 // 12:00PM GMT
As we detailed in Part 1 of this series, over the past 12 months women in this industry have experienced anguish — fueled, in part, by the multitude of responsibilities pummeled upon them just as everyone needed, simply, a break. The added demands came, seemingly, out of nowhere and all at once.
According to a New York Times survey, 80% of mothers said they were managing home school in their house and, in another survey, it found that most employers felt their only obligation to employees during the pandemic was flexible hours. “We found that over three quarters of working parents have received nothing else in the way of time off or money for child care. It's just these flexible hours,” reporter Claire Cain Miller said in an interview. Of course, these flexible hours were, undeniably, a life raft for so many in PR. But even so, many women hit a breaking point — among those coupled with men, female parents were more than twice as likely to reduce their hours during the pandemic.
But it wasn’t just caregiving, other hurdles women face were amplified and accelerated during the pandemic. The percentage of VC deals that went to women-led startups dipped to just 2.3% in 2020, women continue to face a slower climb into leadership with less guidance, to name a few.
As we explore the impact of these obligations amid seemingly impossible circumstances, we have stories of women balancing obligations around parenting, schooling, managing their own illnesses, their own businesses, their partner's illness, and more.
Part 2, Obligations: “On the inside, everyone was falling apart”
“Just over a year ago, my colleague of 13 years passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. I thought then that the hardest thing I would navigate in business was how to pull the organization through that loss, but only a few weeks later lockdowns were beginning across Europe and the scale of what I was expected to navigate, alongside my own grief, was escalating very quickly. I had also taken on a temporary cover role for one of my clients and was trying to navigate their challenges alongside our own. And all this with home school also on the cards.
Someone recently said to me of this extraordinary world we’ve been thrust into that no-one should have to be that resilient. And it’s true. I still hear the teachers on the Google Meets – one year on – tell the kids the importance of resilience and I think ‘you’re wrong – it’s OK for them to wobble right now because we’re not meant to cope with this for this long.’ And yet we have coped, somehow.” — Kate Stevens, president, Europe, AxiCom
“Personally, I needed every ounce of optimism and energy to make it through the difficult early days, and then in August, I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. My children needed me, InkHouse needed me, and I needed to be out. My husband took care of our family while I spent eight weeks on medical leave, and the InkHouse executive team took care of the agency.
I’d never choose to relive the past 12 months, but I wouldn’t take them back. Even though we were remote, and maybe especially because of it, I learned how deeply people care about each other, and how that sustains a business and a community.” — Beth Andrix Monaghan, CEO & founder, InkHouse
"The pressure is everywhere: pressure to keep our teams inspired and our clients happy and to provide sound counsel in these unprecedented times. Pressure to keep it real versus to be a team cheerleader full of toxic positivity" “As pajamas replaced dresses and life got a bit too much, what really helped me was to take a deep breath and meditate on prioritizing. I remember cleaning up my to-dos KonMarie style. On my mirror I put up a quote by Ann Richards, ‘I don’t want my tombstone to read ‘she kept a clean house’ – clean house here meant jobs which were getting in my way of work, keeping my family healthy or engaging my team virtually.” — Ira Pradhan, leader - communications, D&I, CSR at Freshworks (India)
"I have a headache. And I’ve had one since Christmas. I only realized it when for a brief 30 minutes it lifted when the sun came out and daffodils pushed through the hard ground for the first time. Then it returned again. My head is just so full – full of the work, of fears, of my kids constant demands ‘no you can’t have another snack’ but also full of opportunity.
We’ve actually had an incredible 12 months as a business – but it’s taken its toll. Growing at pace, during Covid, with growing teams you’ve never met in the flesh, and whilst only ever seeing the same four walls, has been exhausting. As has trying to do it all from a values-first position which often means the harder path. I constantly make the point that I have nothing to complain about but that’s not actually good for people to hear. People need to know that what might look easy is actually damn hard. And that it’s OK to have doubts, to feel overwhelmed and – frankly – to be just exhausted.” — Nik Govier, CEO and founder, Blurred
“My team and I began disagreeing on strategy, and by the time I left, I was depleted. Taking another job felt intimidating. If I wasn't well and discouraged, how could I be of use? It took a couple of months to work through that and I eventually completed a Corporate Communicate Certificate program through Cornell, reconnected with past colleagues and bosses, and remembered my strengths and the value I bring to an organization.” — Angela Baldwin, founder of Baldwin PR and Marketing
"It’s OK for them to wobble right now because we’re not meant to cope with this for this long"
“Over the past 12 months I have taken on a European business alongside the shock of the pandemic. I have sat with a little girl on my lap as I presented during high profile business meetings. I have walked from difficult business calls straight into tears about failed maths homework. I have been lectured about what happened when Pangea broke up whilst I’m on the loo. I have joined pitches under rude names thanks to kids mucking about on their own Zoom calls via my laptop. I have supported my spouse through a work restructure and risk of redundancy. I have learnt the ‘bus stop method’.
I have screamed and yelled. I have laughed and cried. I gained weight. I lost weight. I worked. Hard. I got angry. I felt overwhelmed — in good and bad ways. And all this with that omnipresent feeling of being on the edge of a cliff, about to topple over. But I never toppled.” — Name withheld, European Head of Network Agency
“Finally, when the cities opened up, I was back in my hometown, reunited with my family. Then suddenly one day, my mother lost sense of taste and smell. We all got tested and my mother, sister and I were tested Covid-19 positive. Everyone had different symptoms. They recovered soon, I took a month and was fine. Not realizing what lied ahead.
The impact of Covid impacted my health — not only physically but mentally. I had been chasing perfection in everything — especially my work and what I got was anxiety. Sleepless nights — one after the other. Panic attacks. All with some sort of physical pain — almost every day. My work couldn't make me happy, like everything else around me. Even smaller things used to trigger negative thoughts.” — Pratishtha Kaura, communications professional
“My best advice for anyone now is to get yourself a group of coworkers you can rely on...We’re often all on the same call, having a back channel conversation trying to figure out a course of action in real time, which can be incredibly efficient. It’s also a place to cheer on successes and reassure when there are down times. Some days I may feel like I am living in a dumpster on fire, but it’s reassuring to know that these women have my back.” — Ellen Gerstein, senior director digital communications and social media, Pfizer
“The pressure is everywhere: pressure to keep our teams inspired and our clients happy and to provide sound counsel in these unprecedented times. Pressure to keep it real versus to be a team cheerleader full of toxic positivity. Pressure to have enough energy to read ‘How Does a Dinosaur Say Goodnight’ for the 1500th time with the same enthusiasm as the first time after a day of back to back Zoom.
Pressure to not be full of angst when so many have it so much worse. Pressure to recognize all of my privilege and the inequity of society-at-large and still admit when I need help. Sometimes the pressure is so great that I just yell at my husband. Don’t worry, I love him very much and I value and appreciate him. On better days I ride it all away on the bike or goblet squat enough reps to close out the day in peace.” — Frani Chung, SVP, M Booth
"It was just me and my baby and my laptop sitting in front of me all at once. How was I going to be a good mom, employee, wife, friend, daughter?" “On the outside every mom was like, ‘it’s fine’ — but on the inside, everyone was falling apart. It sucked and I never told anybody how much it was crushing me inside. Even though everyone was supportive, it wasn’t really OK to not be OK. Because when resources are tight, people go after each other.” — Name withheld, US agency leader
“In many ways I was lucky. I had the means to be unemployed, money saved, and there were many support services and resources available to cushion the blow. My family and I were OK financially for a bit, when many others in my situation were not.
But I was discouraged and felt like a failure. I wondered if my need for more support was indicative of being unsuited for leadership. Was it ‘womanly’ and weak, not strong? Not ‘executive.' But my true failing was in not being brave enough to validate my feelings and have the conversations that I was encouraging others on my teams to have. I think that so many of us feel that we have to be strong all the time.” — Syreeta Mussante, PRSA Silicon Valley Board Member
“In my personal life, it has been hard having my kids home all day. I feel guilty working because I'm so used to getting everything done while they are gone at school. There is no longer a solid beginning and end to my day as a mom and business owner...The struggles have included living with a frontline health care worker and the daily worry of him catching Covid and suffering as well, and bringing it home to me and our children.
I couldn't sleep for months due to this worry and a host of others we have all experienced. Not seeing family was also hard. My mom was the sole caregiver for my dad who suffered from Alzheimer's. He passed away on Thanksgiving 2020. I lost so much time with my family, especially my dad, and will never get it back. Those are the daily reminders I try not to think about.” - Jennifer McGinley CEO, JLM Strategic Communications
"I wondered if my need for more support was indicative of being unsuited for leadership. Was it ‘womanly’ and weak, not strong? Not ‘executive'"“Wearing many hats at work though is nothing compared to all of the roles I've had to play at home. My three kids are 4, 6 and 8 and have been completely virtual for an entire year now, so managing everything from school to haircuts to all the usual roles has been the hardest version of Mom I've ever had to be. Don’t be fooled by the strategically positioned or blurred video call backgrounds. At any given hour there is likely a frustrated child crying, the house is a mess and everyone is still in pajamas!” — Brenna Sweeney, co-founder and CXO, Thermal
“On the back of 3 miscarriages, losing a baby to Patau syndrome and discovering my partner had cancer, as a CEO of a creative communications agency, I found myself thrown another challenge; Covid.
As Covid was taking hold in China, I found myself pregnant again, managing the anxiety of whether the pregnancy would go full term, looking after my partner who was receiving chemo, looking after my step-son —who I made a promise would not see any changes in his life as a result of his dad being ill, while running an agency with clients who needed more support than ever.
It was definitely a challenge! But being an entrepreneur, I am used to challenges and we created new strategies for our clients, pivoting them from PR to telling their stories on social and other owned brand platforms, ensuring they could weather the Covid storm. While I am glad to see the back of those challenges, I am reminded what happens when you dig in.” — Sharon Flaherty, CEO BrandContent"I felt overwhelmed — in good and bad ways. And all this with that omnipresent feeling of being on the edge of a cliff, about to topple over"“Until 2020, keeping home life and work life separate was a path taken by many women in the misguided concept that you are more likely to be taken seriously. But it has never sat naturally for me. This virtual world has given an open window into my life and my home and my team has now seen my choice of kitchen, met the kids, the dog, my husband, and I expect a meeting with the gerbils Ziggy and Iggy is probably not far off either. And none of this has affected how I’ve been seen at work. The point is, I’ve learnt it’s ok to be me. The whole me can still be seen as a leader and good at her job, and me, with all my various attachments is still good enough.” — Rosie Bannister, managing director, UK, AxiCom
“I got tapped to help a local candidate running for school board – a very well qualified woman was running for a seat on a historically male school board, who also happened to be an amazing champion for underprivileged kids. Working full time, managing remote learning, trying to maintain a peaceful home, I did not have the time.
But I made the time and when she won the election, my kids celebrated alongside me. It turns out that me taking on this role and talking to them about it was a very tangible way for them to understand the importance of using our position, connections and power to help others. It was exhausting, and when my kids would ask why I was doing it I didn’t always have a good answer, but I did it and it was absolutely the right thing to do.” — Nichole Mullen, VP head of insights, Hotwire
“In September 2019, I became a first-time mom, took my leave and returned to the workforce. One of my biggest concerns which I think many women returning to workforce is, will I still be viewed as a valuable member of the team and be entrusted to take on new opportunities, be considered for promotions and excel in my career? But during a pandemic has provided enough content for an entire manuscript!
Since returning, I've joined our executive team, taken on new responsibilities at the agency, and frankly, have mastered my ability to manage my time and focus my energy as a result of Method's culture and the emphasis we place on supporting working women, and working parents in general, to thrive." - Kylie Mojaddidi, SVP, Method Communications
"It wasn’t really OK to not be OK. Because when resources are tight, people go after each other." “I had my first child in November of 2019 and stayed home with him almost every day during my maternity leave until I was ready to enter back into the workforce at the end of February 2020….after putting my makeup on for the first time, doing my hair, getting prepared for my commute into NYC — Covid hit. Back on the train I went to my baby and apartment. I was too afraid of hiring someone to help take care of him. My husband just started his own business and was working 12-16 hour days. It was just me and my baby and my laptop sitting in front of me all at once. How was I going to be a good mom, employee, wife, friend, daughter? I had no idea what I was doing and had no idea how to do it all.
I will forever be indebted to my team who stood by me every single day. They flexed with me and told me it was okay and I was a good mom and a good employee and a good person, even when I felt like I wasn’t.” — Emily Michael, HR director, M Booth
"Over the past 12 months the pressure has never stopped. Pressure to keep the family, the house, and the business going. Pressure to support unconditionally my children, husband, parents, and colleagues. Pressure to look after myself, ensuring that I’m healthy enough to maintain energy and optimism in the face of unprecedented challenges. It has been relentless, exhausting, heart-breaking, and scary.
The things that energise me were taken away – people, places, parties! I missed and, all too often, neglected my friends because something had to give. But there has been bright spots. In the face of adversity I have seen the best in so many people.
The community spirit and entrepreneurialism of the team at Ketchum in the UK has been second to none. The love and partnership from my husband has been rock solid. The friendship and support of our neighbors has been heart-warming. There have also been beautiful memories made that will last a lifetime – seeing Molly go from a baby to a bossy toddler, seeing Keir find his voice and adapt so beautifully to home-schooling just age four, and being reminded that it is the people closest to me and the smallest human interaction that make life great. I am a better person for getting through these last 12 months, but I never ever want to have to do it again." — Jo-ann Robertson, Ketchum UK CEO
Additional reporting by Arun Sudhaman, Diana Marszalek and Maja Pawinska Sims.
Parts 3-4 — Actions & Aftermath — will follow this week. Read Part 1: Anguish here.