It was 16 July 2020, and the world was far from normal. Although we had come out of lockdown in NSW in late May, the second lockdown in Melbourne had just been announced. Venturing out of our homes in Sydney was still a nervous experience, but we were starting to go back to the office. Even the elbow bump was going back to shaking hands (as long as you sanitised after!).
And so, it seemed like the time was right to have my first post-lockdown business lunch, with a senior female leader at one of Australia’s top construction firms. It didn’t take long to discover that we were starving, not for food but to share our experience as professional women whose lives had taken unexpected turns due to the unprecedented merging of work and home.
My generation was sold a very specific picture of what makes a successful female leader. Having entered the workplace in the 1980s, you had to wear a ‘power suit’ (complete with impressive shoulder pads) and you had to work all hours of the day and night to prove yourself. In short, you not only had to mimic looking like a man, you had to be able to out-work a man. You had to be a ‘power woman’.
With COVID, suddenly we had an identity crisis. The commute which enabled a transition from one persona to the other was gone – and the workplace was your living room, or even your bedroom. Here there was also the pressure of being surrounded by domestic chores that previously could be left behind while in the office. On top of that, there was a massive wave of people rediscovering the domestic, with the sourdough baking movement making you feel even more guilty that the hours you had devoted to building a career also meant you were a terrible cook.
While we tried to adjust to feeling professional in track suits rather than designer suits, the decisive blow happened – the schools closed, and our kids were sent home.
Being a power woman now meant you were plugged into technology pretty much all the time, with bewildered kids finding it hard to understand that ‘mum was in a meeting’ in their living room, speaking into a screen, and that this meeting was back-to-back calls all day, followed by working late into the night after a quick break to make dinner. One of my colleagues shared that her daughter was reconsidering whether she wanted to go to university after seeing first-hand the reality of being a power woman and it being harder than ever to switch off.
When we met for lunch on that day in July, I found I was not the only one experiencing feelings of failure and questioning my choices. It was such as relief to share this burden and the strange emotions I was feeling of being thrust back into the home, the ‘female domain’, while working harder than ever before to be a superwoman in the face of a world in crisis.
We came up with the idea of getting together a group of leading women to share their COVID experience over lunch. With a limit of only 10 people allowed to lunch together and the fear that we could be thrust back into lockdown any day, we had our fingers and toes crossed that the lunch would be able to go ahead.
That lunch was very special. We talked and we laughed – and pondered about the long-term effects of the pandemic on women in the workplace. We wondered why we had never made the time to network with each other before, in the way that men commonly do. Of course, the answer was simple – we were too busy working.
Six months on and we recently had our second lunch. This time our numbers grew from 10 to 14, with more women keen to plug into the conversation. Checking in, it was remarkable how much had changed. Again, we shared stories of how the pandemic had affected our careers and our families, with stunning humility and honesty.
One had concealed her baby bump on Zoom calls, only to stun her colleagues when she went into labour. Now back in the office and with three kids, she is determined to step into a CEO role and put her talents to work as a female leader. Others spoke of being on the Board of firms grappling with the sheer logistical complexity of sending everyone home, while still trying to cook meals for the family before the working day began.
It was so refreshing to let down our guard and not to talk about how we were powering ahead, but rather to reveal our vulnerabilities and share in the need to revisit what success even means.
We agreed that COVID had enabled us to embrace change in a way that nothing had before. That we needed to work less and to be kinder to ourselves and others. To lower the bar because it had been set impossibly high for those of us who had bought into the idea of being a power woman.
I walked out of all three of those lunches feeling an incredible sense of affirmation – that we can and must change a working environment that expects anyone – male or female – to suit up and shut up about our vulnerabilities and sensitivities.
As we transition out of a working model founded in the factories of the industrial era and are increasingly merging work and home, it’s time for women to stop pretending to be like men or feeling obliged to out-work them.
We need to stop trying to act like power men, and actually become power women.
Inclusion isn’t just the right to participate or occupy the same number of leadership roles as men. It’s about expanding the whole paradigm of work to recognise the value of female qualities or those of any minority group.
As we revaluate work as a place, we also need to re-think work itself. We need a different kind of workplace that replaces traditional behaviours associated with power, such as aggression, control and competitiveness, with a greater emphasis on kindness, empathy and nurturing. Women are caring, considerate, natural diplomats and mediators. We are organised, multitaskers who can be patient and like to build upon peoples’ skills.
These are the powers that are becoming increasingly critical in a world where new ways are needed to address so many big issues that have arisen from a view of power as entitlement and the right to exploit people and planet – including climate change; social, racial and gender inequity; and equitable access to public health, education and a minimum wage, amongst many others.
We need only to look to Jacinda Arden as the figurehead for this new movement – a prime minister who had a baby while in office, and who has shone globally as a leader who put empathy and caring for her people rather than the economy at the centre of her response to the pandemic, coming out ahead of other nations on both fronts in the end.
I can’t wait for our next lunch, and more stories of women re-defining their lives on their own terms, as we reclaim our innate powers and the power of supporting each other.