Working from home while caring for family during a deadly pandemic has been transformational for many women – and often not in a good way.
With few child care options and increased demands at home, more than 2 million women have dropped out of the workforce entirely. And millions more are still struggling to maintain a work-life balance they can live with.
Even many women in high-level leadership roles – despite the privileges that come with their jobs – were forced to reassess their priorities.
Here’s how the pandemic has changed three women executives’ views on their careers and their lives.
Being more present with her family
As a mother of two and the new CFO of the virtual reality technology company Dreamscape Immersive, Deborah Medrano’s plate was already full. But then the pandemic hit.
She was only on the job a few weeks before her company went remote. Her father-in-law died (unrelated to Covid) just days before the shutdown. She was helping her two teenage sons with distance learning and then, after the family moved to a new neighborhood in July, helping them adjust to their new school. She was making meals for the family. And all while trying to work virtually and get to know her new team and other C-suite leaders, most of whom she’d never met in person.
“I felt like I was in a fog. My kids were like, ‘Mom, you’re zoning out all the time.’ Objectively I was achieving enough. But I didn’t feel very motivated. I was just trying not to drown. … I had a very low bar [for success] – nobody’s dying, nobody’s complaining. If you asked what I did yesterday I couldn’t tell you most of the time,” Medrano said.
She came to realize how important it was to recharge whenever she found a free moment during the workday, and to put aside the guilt she felt for not using that time to get work done.
“I decided to do something for me. I bought a bike, and when I found an hour gap [in my work calendar], I went for a ride.” Or some days, she said, she’d take a bath in the middle of the day.
Beyond recognizing the need to take breaks, Medrano said 2020 taught her to think differently about time and about the need to be present, which she considers blessings.
After years of long workdays, frequent business trips and very scheduled times with family, Medrano realized she had been missing those little moments of serendipity with her kids. Being home gave her a chance to see their quirks and their sense of humor in ways she hadn’t before. “Now we walk to school with my 12-year-old and I relish that.”
With her 16-year-old, as frustrating as it can be dealing with teenagers, she said, “I may only have 25 more frustrating fights with him [before he leaves home]. So I don’t lose my cool.”
From now on, Medrano said, she will hold herself accountable to create the space and time in her work schedule to be present for herself and her family in ways she wasn’t before.
Eager to spend more time working from home
For years, Amy Jo Smith logged 150,000 miles of air travel annually going to Europe, Asia and various US cities in her role as president and CEO of the Digital Entertainment Group, a trade association for the home entertainment industry.
Smith said she was on the road for one week out of every five or six. “Sometimes I was more in the air than on the ground – it sounds crazy.”
When not traveling, her daily work routine meant getting up by 5:30 am, taking her daughter to school and arriving at the office between 7 am and 7:30 am.
But the past year has taught Smith she has no interest in resuming such a punishing schedule. Now she gets up, works out, has breakfast with her 16-year-old daughter, and then starts working from her home office.
“I love the new pace. I don’t have any wish to have to be and go and do. I don’t miss it,” Smith said.
She also said when things open up she won’t resume commuting to her old office.
The landlord for DEG’s office space in Los Angeles, where Smith lives, wanted to raise the rent when the lease came up for renewal. So she decided to give it up. Instead, she said, she and her team will continue working from home but get together in person for some meetings, whether at the private women executives club Chief, where she’s a member, or at a WeWork space.
While she misses seeing her business associates in person all the time, she realizes this time with her daughter is a gift.
“Sitting here in my home office and having my daughter run in and tell me what someone said in class… or a thought she had… is more powerful than any meeting you can have in person. I don’t have that many more years with her,” Smith said.
As for business travel, she expects to do some, but nowhere near what she used to. “A lot of the travel that I did will not come back because people will understand they can be just as efficient without doing it.”
Prior to the pandemic, Smith had been contemplating what she might do next professionally.
But now that she is not having to log long days at the office and spend weeks on the road away from her husband and daughter, Smith said one thing became very clear to her. “I really like my work.”
A chance to think about bigger issues
Hemali Vyas, a program leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, realizes how lucky she is that her two children are now young adults, and only one still lives at home. So she hasn’t experienced that acute stress many mothers have had juggling child care and schooling while trying to work from home.
For Vyas, however, the pandemic clarified for her that she wants to spend more time on pivotal social and political issues, such as climate change.
“It opened up time to reflect on bigger issues and on what else I can do,” Vyas said. And it taught her how much more efficiently she can get some work done while working from home.
Among her upcoming projects at NASA, she will serve on the board of the team charged with recovering samples from Mars after the successful rover landing in February.
But Vyas also has let her boss know there are projects she might like to work on either in the early mornings or late afternoons – such as perhaps creating a STEM program that teaches middle schoolers and high schoolers how to create a garden that grows food for people in need, all while learning how to reduce their carbon footprint.
So Vyas now thinks it will make sense for her to work from home for part of the week. That option had been available to her before the pandemic, but she hadn’t utilized it because she thought it was important to have a lot of face time with colleagues.
“But I’m realizing you don’t need that five days a week,” Vyas said.