CEO Becca Apfelstadt shares why the pandemic has created an impasse for women and ways you can unlock the deadlock

The COVID-19 pandemic has created rapid change in many areas with ripple effects that are still to be realized, but one of the greatest (and most disappointing) impacts it has delivered has been on working women.

A recent survey by McKinsey showed that women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s during the past year.

Think about it. How many women do you know who took on the brunt of virtual learning and childcare once schools and daycares closed? Certainly, for a while, the news was filled with stories championing and celebrating the woman who were “doing it all” – handling Zoom meetings with kids on their lap while trying to keep it all together. But as the shutdown continued, the compassion and empathy seemed to wear out. And sadly, more women found the need to leave the workforce because stressors at home and in “the office” simply made it too hard to do both.

Stress, pressure, scrutiny, inflexibility. However we got here, women are feeling it in a big way. The pandemic push came to shove and hard decisions had to be made.

The McKinsey study also showed that there has been a drop in venture capital funding for women-led startups, dropping from 2.8 percent in 2019 to 2.3 percent in 2020. As a female entrepreneur of a former start-up (treetree just celebrated 12 years in business), this makes me sad but also fires me up. Because dammit, why are we letting this happen? Women are powerhouses, too. No offense guys, but companies need women to be successful.

This is not my personal opinion, though I passionately agree. It’s fact.

The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology published a report that showed, among other statistics, that teams with at least one woman had collectively higher IQ than teams with men only. And Fortune 500 companies with at least three female directors resulted in a 66 percent jump in return on invested capital, a 42 percent sales increase and a return on equity increase of 53 percent. More diverse groups perform better – it’s as simple as that.

But in order to help make business better, women need to feel successful when they’re “off” the clock just as much as they do when they’re “on.” Because when we make them choose, family comes first. I know this from my personal experience not only as a working mom, but as a leader of a business that is largely made up of women in an industry in which our clients (largely marketing directors) are mostly women (67 percent according to the Association of National Advertisers).

So how do we stop the mass exodus of women leaving the workforce? What can we do as leaders to make this new normal not only palatable, but actually attractive to women? How do we show we’re committed to diversity instead of just saying it?

Here are a few ways I’ve found that send a clear message that women are wanted:

Trash the timesheet.

Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it requires trust and communication. And yes, it liberates people in a very real and meaningful way. When you remove hour-for-hour tracking, you tell both female and male associates that you value them, you trust them, and you want them to find balance in their day. Do you really care what time your team is working on what project? Or do you just care that it’s done well, done to (or beyond) client expectations and done on time? Removing timesheet stipulations lets people design their day. It removes mom and dad guilt, co-worker guilt, and breathes new energy and possibility into every day, not only increasing wellness and positivity, but even capacity.

Give 100% paid parental leave to moms and dads for both birth and adoption.

This is a non-negotiable for me. And if you haven’t made it happen at your company yet, you’re already sending a message to the women (and men) on your team that you see them as dollar signs, not people. You’re telling them you’re not interested in who they are outside of work. That you don’t prioritize family. That you don’t care if they come back. And this simply cannot be tolerated anymore. Do the right thing, and give your team the time they deserve when their family grows.

treetree started this in 2018, and I’m still kicking myself that we didn’t have this policy in place from the first day our agency opened. Since then, we’ve welcomed four babies (one of them is my niece!), have two more on the way and have never missed a beat when it comes to the work.

Demonstrate belief.

Employees who feel empowered stay. They adopt ownership mindsets. They grow roots. And they feel a sense of responsibility that doesn’t exist when they feel micromanaged or distrusted. Show your team how much they mean to your company by giving them the reigns every once in a while. Delegate leadership of large initiatives, and then get out of the way. Take time off and resist the urge to check in or read emails unless it’s a business emergency.

Make “no” okay.

When we’re virtual, it seems as though we’re all accessible 24/7. But this can blur the lines between work and personal life. It can make people feel trapped in their WFH environment for fear of missing a Slack, email or on-a-whim Zoom call. It can create guilt. In order to be at our best, we need focus time, white space and the ability to prioritize. This means letting people protect their time and making it okay for them to say “no” if an ask will compromise their mindset, their ability to deliver quality or their other priorities. And the best way to make “no” feel okay in your organization is to say it yourself when energy is low and distractions threaten to steal your valuable head space and time.

The pandemic may have forever changed how we work. But when it comes to the who of our workforce, we have to reverse this trend and not lose the progress we’ve been working so hard to make. And we can do it through the cultures we create, the policies we implement and the behaviors we model. Perhaps the pandemic has set us on the perfect path as leaders to recapture a model for work that works for the whole person and their family. Women, and every single employee, deserve equal opportunity to achieve their potential for success. And they deserve our whole-hearted efforts to help them do so.

I know we’re not out of the global pandemic yet, and I know the effects will be felt for years (perhaps even decades) to come, so let’s hope that we can find the silver linings and teachable moments that will create even more progress, encouragement and inspiration in our workplaces around the world.

Becca Apfelstadt

After starting her career in advertising as an intern at just 17 years old, Becca Apfelstadt co-founded Columbus-based marketing agency treetree to live out her passion for agency life. Day in and day out, she and her team prove that a smart approach to positioning and culture make a big impact on the work created and the client teams the agency supports. Since 2009, treetree has been fueled by growth, being recognized multiple times on the Inc. 5000 list nationally and Columbus Business First's Fast 50. Of special importance to Becca, treetree has been honored for culture as one of Columbus Business First’s Best Places to Work and nationally as a Best Workplaces recipient by Inc. Magazine. She was awarded Forty under 40 in Columbus Business First in 2015 and has been featured in Fortune, GrowWire, and I Want Her Job, as well as on the podcasts Conquering Columbus and Business First's Women of Influence. Becca speaks on topics related to women in leadership, creative workplace policies, time management and treetree's culture and workplace design. In 2020 she launched an initiative called Get Your Mind Bright to help rising leaders grow in their home, work and hearts. The newsletter is full of inspired content to help you shine brighter.

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