I have been reading so much about how this period of extreme remote work will destroy women’s careers and expand the gender gap. Yet, in our own research and work with our clients, we think that the opposite is happening. Women are rising to the occasion, showing their agility and creative problem-solving skills, and helping others survive, if not thrive during the crisis. As an anthropologist, we know that is hard to capture the moment with sufficient stories, human experiences, and observations to present an accurate picture of what is happening. But, our experiences suggested that it was time to share some of these women’s stories to balance the record and redirect expectations.

The work we have been doing coaching executives and their emerging leaders has shown us, over and over again, how creative, productive, and collaborative women are in adapting to new business environments. While the impact of the virus might be extreme, the women, and the men they work with, have managed to see the silver lining in this grey cloud. As we coach them and listen to them vent their frustrations, we find them also exploring new ideas. These are big ideas. And we find that great thinking is taking place and great women are emerging.

As a result, we have been urging business leaders to rethink their ideas about the roles women play in. their organizations. It is a good time for them to capture the energy and resourcefulness that their employees are demonstrating. Why lose the lessons that have been learned? Capitalize on them and help them move forward.

For example, we had one manager of 300 people develop a new approach to shed costs will refocusing their efforts during their time working remotely. This manager’s CEO was fascinated at her ideas. He listened to her approach, had few questions, and sent her and her team on their way forward. No more over-analyzing the decisions. He watched her make the right decisions and encouraged her to keep learning and adjusting. This was far less “command and control” leadership and much more “entrepreneurial empowerment.”

Another woman client was having trouble with her team. They wanted a clear vision for the future. They expected one from her. Instead, she had the team come together to create a shared vision that they could imagine and begin to implement. It was now their turn to visualize the future and they were great at it.

In another client situation, we were observing how the women thought about “we” while their male counterparts were irritated about “I.”  This is going to be a time for “we” to solve problems. Businesses and communities are going to need each other to stop competing and begin to team up, share resources and talent, and think beyond that competitive mindset. It is no longer about winning a soccer game. It is about creating a more healthy, productive, and even child-and family-friendly world.

Recently, Women’s Business Collaborative had a Roundtable with women CEOs speaking about how women were leading during the pandemic. These women CEOs included Deanna M. Mulligan from Guardian Life Insurance, ancestry.com’s CEO Margo Georgiadis, and IG Group’s June Felix. They spoke about their own experiences and those of their employees. While each was different, they were in awe of how their organizations rose to address the pandemic with creativity and positivity. The recurring themes in their messages, much like those of my own clients, were three-fold: 

  • Women leaders cared about the health and safety of their staff, and from their caring came an extraordinary performance by employees who trusted the leadership.
  • Authentic leadership created a new sense of purpose and renewed mission so that employees at all levels and both men and women could begin to see a future, even if it was a bit fuzzy.
  • The ingenuity, agility, and creativity of the employees was unexpected but deeply appreciated. It taught them a great deal about how they need to enable their staff to use their ideas and creative energies to build better solutions.

There is no doubt that women are growing in their roles as they adapt to new business and home/life environments. Coming out of these changes are new ways for men and women to see each other and work together. 

From an anthropological perspective, it is a great time for women and men to see their worlds through a fresh lens, gain new respect for each other’s capabilities, and pull the economy and our culture into a new stage in our gender development. It is time to change the story.

This also means that men and women have to think more like anthropologists. They need to pause, step back, and rethink what has always been those “way we do things.” The future may not come back the way it was. You might not even want it to. I cannot tell you how many clients have said, “I can finally do what I have been trying to do for a while.” The team should be men and women thinking about how “we” can build better businesses, communities, schooling, society.

From our perspective, and what I am hearing in our work with our clients, they have become far more comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown than they thought they would be. They are even proud of how they can change—even with a little pain.