Nyla Beth Gawel

COMMENTARY

Workplace authenticity can be a woman's best friend

Women have been struggling to strike the right balance between work and personal life for years. Research shows that about five years ago, 58% of millennial moms said being a working mom makes it harder to get ahead in their careers. Even more concerning, half of women age 30 and under said they thought their gender was a disadvantage at work. Fast forward to 2021 and COVID-19 has further complicated the problem.

While it’s easy to assume that the shift to remote work in response to the pandemic would ease some of the burden pressing on women’s work/life balance, that is far from the truth. Increasingly, evidence shows that COVID-19 has impacted women in the workplace at every level — all the way from frontline workers to senior managers.

Most troubling are all of the women who have been forced out of the workforce in disproportionately high numbers. Recent projections estimate that employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. That’s two full years after a recovery for men.

Many of us who work in the government technology space are fortunate that we have white collar jobs, high-speed Internet at home, and supportive home lives – something that not every woman who is balancing work and life is afforded. As for those still in the workforce, even women who had successfully navigated the work/life balance challenges before the pandemic found that work from home often meant additional strains and stresses. For example, individuals who need to compartmentalize the various parts of their lives found this to be no longer possible, while those who are multitaskers are pushing that ability to the limit. There is no longer a clear line dividing work/life balance, as the two are completely intertwined.

This situation perpetuates the cycle of women needing to choose between advancing their careers and having a life outside the office — especially if they want a career in management in the tech industry. This “either/or” paradigm leads women to taper off in career advancement. Though they may be making more inroads in the field, they’re not moving up to management positions as often or as quickly as men.

So what can we do to address this pervasive issue? Begin to get real.

Women must embrace authenticity in the workplace to face these challenges head on. Authenticity — being true to yourself in your actions and interactions — can not only provide a greater sense of equilibrium for individuals, but help to create a climate of support throughout the workplace by making others aware of and empathetic to your particular challenges – whether that relates to child care, issues at home, health issues or other personal circumstances. (Leading with empathy, as noted by author Amy J. Wilson, is something from which we can all benefit.)

Like many women in business, my career often took precedence in the past. It affected how others saw me and the opportunities I could go after. Now, as a leader at a Fortune 500 company and a mother, I’m choosing to balance all aspects of my life. For example, on Zoom calls, I don’t hide that I have kids and dogs in the background. That doesn’t mean I’m not focused on achieving company goals; I just choose not to feel guilty about the fullness of life.

Interestingly, this hasn’t caused any setbacks for me on the job. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I often have to pause, turn from the camera, and reorient the “interns” (as I refer to my kids), and even sometimes ask for forgiveness when an excited child screams of his “potty success” for all my colleagues to hear. The overwhelming majority of those with whom I interact – especially at higher levels of the company – completely understand when unexpected things happen. I believe that understanding happens because I’m being true to myself and my reality.

One thing that COVID-19 and the shift to remote work has shown us is that leaders have to enable others in the organization to achieve that same balance, though it may not come naturally to managers – or to employees. Different organizations or departments may see things differently, but regardless of the work environment, the support structure (managers and peers) must ask and engage, not assume, that everyone has what they need.

At the same time, employees need to have the confidence to ask for what they need — whether that’s training or simply understanding that life isn’t just the job. Understanding one’s own strengths and limitations is the beginning of becoming your most authentic self.

As we move into the post-pandemic era, we’ll find that many things have changed about the workplace and the attitudes that drove people for so long. Creating an environment where everyone can achieve success as their “full selves” will be an evolving, but necessary, process. What won’t change is the need to deliver on promises — to customers, to each other, and perhaps most importantly – to ourselves. So let’s get real and be as authentic as possible.

About the Author

Nyla Beth Gawel is senior vice president for strategy at Science Applications International Corp.

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