The COVID-19 pandemic was a defining moment for women. Millions left the labor market and millions more reevaluated their priorities and their rigid work schedules.
On April 27, MIT Sloan alumnae and faculty joined economist and best-selling author Emily Oster for “Disparate Burdens,” an online conversation about the challenges working women faced before and during COVID-19, and how a work-life balance may be within reach for more employees.
Before the pandemic, mothers who wanted to be successful in their careers rarely discussed with others the physical and mental tasks associated with caring for a family, Oster said. Then, remote work pulled the curtain on women’s lives.
“Everyone saw that you are in your bedroom, and your kid is behind you jumping on the bed,” Oster said. “They saw everything and that made our parenting less of a secret.”
Revealing these tensions can bring about positive change, panelists said. For instance, the financial services industry has long struggled with hiring and retaining female employees, said Liliana Castillo Dearth, MBA '96, a managing director at Wellington Management. The pandemic prompted leaders at Wellington to act.
Castillo Dearth served on a committee that focused on creating a diverse and talented workforce and learned that Wellington employees valued flexibility, a hybrid work schedule, and an office culture that enabled them to ask questions, propose ideas, and advocate for themselves without fearing punishment, a condition known as psychological safety. In response to those findings, Wellington instituted several changes, such as making hybrid work a permanent option for employees.
“We have a lot to learn, and a lot of adjustments need to be made along the way,” Castillo Dearth said. “We need to continue building that flexible mindset muscle.”
Yet, some organizations have not been open to change. Alumnae shared how their employers were eager to return to the office or resume travel. Basima Tewfik (Class of 1943 Career Development Professor; Assistant Professor, Work and Organization Studies) encouraged women to look for subcultures within their companies that share their work-life values. She also suggested that if female workers lack the power or resources to invoke change, leaving a job can be beneficial.
“The research suggests that women tend to be less risk-averse,” Tewfik said. “Understanding your value is really important and something that I want people to remember.”
“Disparate Burdens” was the final installment of a virtual series focused on the theme of connection, empowerment, and action. The in-person MIT Sloan Women’s Conference from October 21 to 22, 2022, in Cambridge, will build on these concepts and feature talks, panel discussions, and networking sessions with MIT Sloan faculty and alumnae. Visit the conference website to learn more about the event and recommended hotel accommodations.