Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021
If you ignore people for a long time, two things will happen. They will disengage and withdraw. And/or they will rise up to take back their power.
Both are happening right now, among women, as we slowly emerge from the epicentre of Covid-19.
A new Deloitte report, ‘Women @ Work: A global outlook’, paints a picture of withdrawal. Surveying 5000 women across 10 countries, it found that 24% of women are considering leaving the workplace altogether. Only 4% expect to remain at their current organisation for more than five years.
Burnout may have something to do with this. 48% of working women feel burned out, according to this Deloitte report. Only 27% feel their mental health is good, compared to 68% pre-pandemic. It’s hard to engage when you’re exhausted. I coach people on this all the time. After emotionally intense experiences, we humans need rest and a deep reset before we are ready to engage again.
But I don’t think burnout is the only, or even the primary, reason for women’s withdrawal. I think they are angry. No, we are angry. I count myself in there too. And that rage has the rumblings of an uprising.
“I’m fuming”, “beyond angry”, “infuriated”, “enraged”. Simmering rage comes through countless comments in the UsForThem England Facebook group, a volunteer organization set up to champion the needs of children through the pandemic and beyond. The group has 12 million members, 20% of the UK’s adult population.
Talk to women in your life. Mention ‘homeschooling’ or ‘self-isolation’; ask about cancelled sports days, exams, or proms; the ethics of child vaccination: very often, you’ll find rage.
Young people have suffered immeasurably through a year of UK lockdowns. As of June 2021, referrals to Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services are up 70% vs. March 2019, and are now at their highest ever level. Five-year-olds are suffering panic attacks about playdates, and NHS leaders have said 1.5 million children will need mental health treatment in the wake of Covid lockdowns.
Tantrums, refusal to do schoolwork, toileting accidents, baby talk, intense and unpredictable emotions, hyperactivity, and sleep difficulties are all examples of regression which Nancy Close, PhD, an assistant professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, has observed as consequences of the pandemic. Mothers have had a front-row seat to it all.
Women are used to being sidelined in society. But hurt our kids? Then you will see that Mama Bear energy. Then you will feel the full force of our love-fuelled-rage.
Many of us still carry unconscious beliefs that anger is bad. ‘Not ladylike’, ‘unattractive’, perhaps even ‘dangerous’. We may push it down. So you might not have noticed it in the women around you. You might not have even acknowledged it in yourself.
But does something ring true?
If you’re wondering ‘why angry?’, here’s some ideas.
1. Men are making the decisions, and they’re not considering gender. Boris Johnson’s Cabinet is only 19% women; SAGE only 32%. Sheltered by key-worker status, did those politicians and scientists understand the magnitude of what they were asking? Did they even consider the gender impact of their decisions?
Evidence suggests not. Researchers analyzed the minutes of 73 SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meetings in 2020. Gender was only referenced in 13 meetings, and these were all related to biological considerations, for example that more men were dying and the risks posed by Covid-19 to pregnant women. ‘The only inclusion of a gender-related concern within the minutes was in relation to young men being less likely to adhere to lockdown rules,” said Clare Wenham, co-author of the report Why we need a gender advisor on SAGE.
2. Experts are taking a too-narrow view, which excludes the needs of children. The SAGE sub-group on children is: ‘focused on the transmission of COVID-19 in children and within schools’. Is transmission all we care about? Is Epidemiology the only form of science? Are children viral vectors, or human beings?
What doesn’t this SAGE sub-group also focus on the impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health and well-being? Where’s neuroscience, sharing the impact of isolation on their developing brains? Where’s epigenetics, considering the impact of trauma on the developing fetus? Was it discussed when limiting women’s choice of birthplace, or forcing them to attend scans alone? Are children’s needs duly considered by decision-makers?
3. Children are suffering, and we feel powerless to help them. As Anne Longfield said, in her final speech as Children’s Commissioner: “It’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children – particularly those who were already disadvantaged.” She states: “we now have definitive evidence of the harm this time out of school has caused children.” But this evidence seems to carry no weight with decision-makers.
Children are still routinely being forced out of school. Even now schools are open, the “bubble” policy remains: whole classes, sometimes whole year groups of 170 children, sent into isolation from just one positive case, destabilising women’s work and children’s well-being once again. It appears that the government isn’t even tracking the effectiveness of this ‘bubble’ policy. How do they know if it’s necessary? It seems that for adults we ‘follow the science’, for young people convenience will do.
4. Employers have not supported women sufficiently, through the difficulties of this last year. Deloitte’s Women @ Work report found that only 40% of women in the UK think their employer provided sufficient support to women through the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, a TUC survey showed that 71% of mums who requested furlough had their request turned down, despite caregiving responsibilities being explicitly named as a reason for furlough by the UK government.
Employers expected the impossible, and women delivered. But it’s taken its toll. In my coaching practice, I hear women care a little less, resent the extra hours a little more, and plan their exit strategy. Withdrawal, resentment, uprising.
5. All this in a context of female oppression. Zoom out to the wider social picture. #metoo. The murder of Sarah Everard, the outpouring of women’s long-held pain and fear. A persistent under-represenation of women in leadership roles. The depressing stats that even in 2021, 54% of FTSE all-share companies have no women on their executive teams; only 7% have female CEOs and 16% female Chairs. A 2020 gender pay-gap of 16% in both the UK and USA. Society hasn’t been working for women for a long time. Report after report says it, yet little changes.
Women are tired. We are despondent. And yes, when we can summon any energy, we are angry.
There are no quick fixes here, only deep systemic change. Start where you are, and listen for the next step. That’s all we can do in times of great change.
Here are some lightly held suggestions, for first steps.
If you’re a woman and you’re angry, feel it. What wisdom does your rage hold? Anger is fire, and fire transforms. Can you make space for your frustration / anger / resentment / rage / fury, without being taken over by it? Notice what you need and want, and let that inform the actions you take. You may want to find others, in your life and workplace, who have also reached a place of ENOUGH. Share your stories, build your voices together.
If you’re a man and you’re angry for your children, partner, friends, or colleagues – thank you! We need you. Let your anger inspire you to listen and to act, in ways big or small.
If you’re an employer waking up to how women really feel: welcome. Resist the temptation to paper over cracks. Instead, take time to listen. Really listen: focus groups, stakeholder interviews, expert interviews; from inside your organization and beyond; current employees and next generations.
Ask women about their experience of this last year. What was hard? What made you feel angry / despairing / hopeful? What support would you loved to have had? Then look forwards, and ask: what do you need to thrive, grow, and belong in this workplace?
Ask about flexible work, parental leave, career-break sabbaticals, equal pay, and a diverse, gender-balanced leadership team. Don’t address these topics separately. They are interdependent, part of the same picture. Take time to reimagine the whole system. Then put excuses aside, and start building the future.
Would the same decisions have been taken these last 12 months, with more women and homeschooling parents round the table? Would we have steered the same course through the pandemic, if women and children were equal members of society?
Make up your own mind on that. I have made up mine.
That’s why I’m angry. That’s why I’m writing this piece. To let my anger fuel the fires of change. To let that fire burn brightly so others may see it, and come and sit around it to share their own stories. Maybe my anger can stoke yours, so we can rise up together, and start discovering and building something new.
Women have wisdom. Parents have wisdom. Children have wisdom. It’s time it is heard, and given equal weight in society.
Last week, while discussing children and young people’s mental health in UK Parliament, Jim Shannon quoted John F. Kennedy: “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” Does your heart break a bit, when you read this? Mine does.
Your rage is here for a reason. Welcome it, and use it well.
Elle Harrison is Founder & Executive Coach at Wild Courage, where she coaches leaders to navigate change with confidence and calm. www.wildcourage.com