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How Women Leaders Are Rising To The Unique Challenges They’re Facing From The Pandemic

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Women, Leadership and Vision”

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While the impact of the global pandemic is far-reaching and hitting millions of people throughout the U.S. in different ways, research has shown that women are more likely than men to say their lives have been disrupted because of the coronavirus. And the long-term effects of Covid-19 on women may be more complicated. Unemployment has hit women harder than men, and women in leadership roles are also facing distinct and often acute challenges such as balancing full-time work with full-time caregiving, providing care for their elderly parents, homeschooling, financially supporting their families as breadwinners, and more.

To learn more about how female leaders are feeling the impact of the pandemic and how they are expanding their leadership influence today and beyond, I was excited to catch up this week with Carolyn Childers, CEO of Chief—the private network dedicated to elevating more women to leadership positions, with 2,000 members and 8,000 on the waitlist. Chief members are women that serve in a VP role (or higher) at companies like Amazon, American Express, Google, HBO, and Spotify. A number of my own leadership and executive coaching clients are members of Chief and work with other Chief members, and rave about it.

Childers explored with me a range of unique challenges that women leaders are facing during this time of crisis, and also the opportunities it presents. Here’s what she shares:

Kathy Caprino: From your perspective, in what unique ways are women impacted by coronavirus, as compared to men?

Carolyn Childers: Coronavirus, like many public health crises, hits women particularly hard and often in different ways from men. While early studies have shown that men are at higher risk to die from Covid-19, women are disproportionately affected by its societal implications. Worldwide, women comprise the majority (nearly 70% by some estimates) of frontline healthcare workers; in the US, that figure is nearly 80%.

These nurse practitioners are the front line workers caring for those hospitalized due to Covid-19. Without women in leadership roles, healthcare and policy solutions will not be representative of the workforce tasked with combating the pandemic. And when healthcare and policy solutions are not representative, they fail.

As women are less likely to hold executive roles, they are more likely to be impacted by layoffs. The data already suggests that women are being hit hardest by Covid-19 staff reductions. Women also comprise the world’s majority of informal workers and are more likely to sacrifice their jobs (either voluntarily or by force) should one partner in a couple get sick with the disease.

Caprino: What are the most profound ways in which women leaders’ professional lives are changing as a result of this quarantine?

Childers: Women have always managed a tremendous amount of invisible labor—whether it’s caring for their children, partners, elderly parents, friends, or maintaining the stability of their own household.

While women hold more executive roles now than ever before, the expectation that they should be able to “juggle it all” remains. This expectation was crazy prior to the pandemic, but now it is simply impossible.

For many working parents, caring for their children and households while sustaining employment depends upon external care—or at least school. Women are now expected to be full-time parents, caregivers, homeschool teachers, and housekeepers—all while excelling in their full-time jobs (and, in the case of Chief members, leading their businesses through unprecedented challenge). As a result, their professional lives are more challenging now than ever.

To survive this period, women need support. My Chief cofounder Lindsay Kaplan is an example of someone whose life has changed drastically as a result of stay-at-home orders. Lindsay has a three-month-old and a four-year-old at home. She balances leading Chief with me while managing a full load as a stay-at-home mom.

She is tasked with handling childcare while working to expand Chief as we look towards future cities, Los Angeles among them. Lindsay and I are fortunate to have a relationship where we are honest with each other and have built a team that allows us the flexibility to bypass certain meetings, knowing that our team will provide a detailed update following their call.

Other women leaders are not as fortunate. They may not have a cofounder, team, manager or leader who understands their specific needs. It can be lonely at the top, and those women are now alone in quarantine, away from their teams and support systems. We need to recognize these challenges and step up to help working parents.

Caprino: As a business devoted to supporting women executives, what specific initiatives is Chief pursuing to provide customized support to your members—all of whom are senior leaders?

Childers: Chief was built for this moment—to unite women executives and provide them with the diverse knowledge and support they need to make challenging business decisions. Our mission is resonating more powerfully now than ever as members help one another craft unprecedented business strategies, navigate difficult home situations, and share invaluable resources.

As an organization, our top priority is curating our services to our members’ needs. In just a few weeks, we moved all of our services to virtual, including our premiere peer Core groups. All of our programming is also now virtual, and we are offering more events than ever, including workshops on topics such as wealth management during times of crisis, motivating remote teams, how to lead through immense uncertainty, and private conversations with industry leaders like Ken Chenault, Penny Pritzker, and Eve Rodsky.

In April, our first fully virtual month, the number of women who participated in events was triple what we saw pre-Coronavirus.

We are also amplifying the Chief experience by fast-tracking new services. We launched personal executive coaching so that members can book one-on-one sessions with top-tier, Chief-vetted coaches. We also offered every member one complimentary personal executive coaching session, since everyone needs some extra support right now. We also created our first editorial email, delivering exclusive, reported articles and interviews directly to our members’ inboxes every week.

This content helps connect our community as we’re all physically distanced. Finally, this week we launched the Chief Hiring Board, where members can privately list top candidates and job openings to bolster their teams and explore new opportunities amidst this challenging professional landscape.

Caprino: In your view, what makes women uniquely qualified to lead at large, but especially during this crisis?

Childers: There is a single trait underscoring women’s unique qualification to lead: empathy. Defined as the ability to understand or share another person’s feelings, empathy is exactly why representation in leadership matters—especially in times of crisis. When employees feel supported and are seen by their leaders, they’re twice as likely to be productive and satisfied by their jobs.

From childhood on, women are socialized to be more empathetic than men. To succeed, we need to overcome challenges that are both different and difficult. Once we secure leadership positions, it’s impossible to forget our scars, or the women whose support enabled our rise to such leadership. We lead for them because in many ways, we are them. Our empathy empowers our teams to do more, stay committed and focused.

When leaders understand the difficulty of working from home while self-isolating with children, they can craft policies that support working parents. When they understand firsthand how families can rely on a single person, they don’t question colleagues who need to sign off early for “family matters.” And, when they’ve experienced the immense anxiety that comes along with pregnancy before a pandemic, they’ll remember to regularly check in on their colleague who’s in her third trimester.

Empathy is the antonym of ego, and without it, decisions cannot be made for the greater good. In this highly uncertain time, empathy is one of the few things leaders have control over. When we feel for others we welcome diverse perspectives, our blinders are removed, and we are able to make informed decisions rather than operating in silos. Empathy is emotional intelligence and awareness, and women have those in spades.

Caprino: As a business, Chief is anchored in gathering in-person as a community. How is your community evolving and strengthening despite becoming fully virtual/remote?

Childers: We have always said that we are a community that happens to have a space, not a space that a community is built around. This is so evident right now. The Chief community is truly stronger than ever. Whether they’re crowdsourcing advice via our messaging platform, gathering at virtual Chief events, or calling one for private conversations, Chief members are connecting on a deeply personal and strategic level.

Having access to the nation’s largest and most diverse network of C-suite women is valuable when your business is doing well, but it’s a complete game-changer when you’re facing a global pandemic. There is no coronavirus playbook, but at Chief, members are helping one another write the future real-time.

Each member is contributing her individual expertise—be it financial, organizational, operational, strategic, legal, or relational—and together, the Chief network is ensuring that no leader feels alone, or without a plan.

Whether gathering for a late-night venting session or navigating exceptionally difficult reductions in force, our members are there for each other now more than ever. We could not be more proud to facilitate these relationships. While we thrived when we had a space, this experience proves that our community doesn’t need to be together physically to make an impact.

Overall, this is a powerful time for women in leadership to make lasting change from the top down. Women in leadership have the opportunity to change policies that once ignored the challenges women at all levels faced.

For more information, visit chief.com.

To build more expansive leadership in your career, work with Kathy Caprino in her Career Breakthrough programs and read her new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss.

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