Updated: Nov 19
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. It acted as a spotlight and a magnifying lens, inviting people to examine their lives and experiences more closely.
As an entrepreneur, family business consultant, wife, and mother of 5-year-old twins, I joined the multitude of women who had to take deep breaths and call on our experiences thus far to take us through something no one was fully prepared for. Seventeen months from the first stay-at-home order was announced in Illinois, I reflect on the potentially good things the pandemic has given us, and the opportunities we can take, if we so choose.
COVID AND THE SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN GOVERNMENT LEADERS
In early 2020, the global pandemic ushered a lot of media attention to and articles about how women-led countries have better numbers and COVID-19 response compared with male-led countries of similar population and GDP.
This is one of the rare events where the gender double bind works to a woman’s advantage: It’s acceptable to be risk averse when one is risking lives. It’s acceptable for women to be decisive (aggressive) if it means keeping COVID-19 numbers low. Women leaders are celebrated for being compassionate to children, health-care workers, families with members suffering from the effects of COVID-19, and the nation as a whole.
That women leaders in government can successfully handle the pandemic should not come as a surprise. A 2018 Pew Research Center study on corporate leadership found that among those who say that men and women approach leadership differently, women leaders are viewed as being better when it comes to creating a safe and respectful workplace, valuing people from different backgrounds, considering the impact of business decisions on society, providing guidance and mentorship to young employees, and providing fair pay and good benefits.
Women already know they can thrive in high-stakes, high-pressure situations. The numbers show that that there is a growing trend of females earning more degrees, there is an increase of married women outearning their husbands, and there is also a growing trend of breadwinner moms. In recent years, there are even a growing number of women-owned businesses. The situation has been getting better for women, but the global pandemic has put a spotlight on the leadership abilities of women to bring countries through a crisis.
The success of COVID measures in women-led countries, however, is not solely because of a female leader. A more in-depth study finds that there is no statistical difference between countries if gender was the only factor. What they found is that the country’s culture has more direct correlation to COVID-19 numbers. In other words, countries that have female leadership are also “more egalitarian with less gender bias, longer-range policy focus, greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and collectivist mentalities tend to do better, because everyone understands that their behavior affects others’ well-being.” Further, researcher Leah C. Windsor states, “Women-led countries may fare better in the long run in part due to the strength of institutions, increased trust in government, and decreases in corruption that female leadership engenders.”
In other words, it’s not only the innate qualities of women that make them successful. They also need to have an environment that is supportive of giving them a chance to be in and display these qualities. Only cultures that allow women to take the lead can harness and take advantage of women’s leadership qualities.
 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/why-do-female-leaders-seem-to-be-more-successful-at-managing-the-coronavirus-crisis  https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephaniefillion/2020/08/05/the-science-behind-women-leaders-success-in-fighting-covid-19/  https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/09/20/women-and-leadership-2018/  https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72  https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2013/05/29/chapter-3-married-mothers-who-out-earn-their-husbands/  https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2013/05/29/breadwinner-moms/  https://s1.q4cdn.com/692158879/files/doc_library/file/2019-state-of-women-owned-businesses-report.pdf  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0244531#sec016  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0244531
COVID AND THE SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN AND HOUSEWORK
Another impact of the global pandemic is shedding light on the way gender plays out in the home. Even before the pandemic, studies have been conducted about how gender plays into the division of labor in the home and its impact on family life. The general conclusion shows that even as male participation in household work has increased, women still do more housework than their husbands.
In his article in the 2018 Special Edition of Time magazine titled “The Ever-Evolving Human Family,” Tom Fields-Meyer noted that the definition of family has changed in the 21st century. Specifically, as of 2010, 34% of children under age 15 live in a household with two parents who are employed, up from only 18% in 1960. However, even with the changing definition and situation of a family, society still hasn’t moved from the mindset of the “one breadwinner/one homemaker” arrangement.
At a time when everyone is working and learning from home, families—especially the men in the family—have witnessed firsthand the unequal division of housework. What was a never-ending “invisible work” that women had to do has now become visible. This has created an opportunity for both men and women to negotiate running their home, doing childcare duties, and showing up for work.
As the pandemic spotlights this inequality, it also brings with it a solution. Brigid Schulte, an award-winning writer and journalist and director of The Better Life Lab, a work-family justice program, suggests having a conversation about gender equity in the household. Talk about the kind of tasks that happen around the house, what quality standards everyone can agree on, and create a system so that both partners know what’s expected of them. Involve children in routines and tasks in the home too. We can all learn from the dynamics of same-sex partners: no chore is assumed to be done by one or the other on the basis of gender. Open communication and creating a system that works for both partners is essential if families are to make housework more equitable.
Another good thing that the pandemic brings is lowering the stigma of working from home and of having a flexible schedule. Before the pandemic, asking for more flexible hours or working from home hurt women and their prospects of moving up at work; companies have now found a way to make it happen and have discovered that it is actually beneficial to have these arrangements. For example, managers are learning to look at results to measure productivity, and there’s less time wasted on commutes, among others.
 https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_images.jsp?cntn_id=111458  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6086200/  Fields-Meyer, Tom. 2018. “The Ever-Evolving Human Family” pp. 4-9 in The Science of Families. Time Magazine, Special Edition. (Husky, CT)  https://www.npr.org/2020/05/21/860091230/pandemic-makes-evident-grotesque-gender-inequality-in-household-work
COVID AND THE SPOTLIGHT ON FAMILY BUSINESSES
Where working women balance family and career, a family business is where three systems intersect: family, business, and ownership. The systems or circles have different and often conflicting values: family values love, shared experiences, and unconditional acceptance; business values growth, profitability, and professionalism; while, ownership values dividend distributions, stock appreciation, and control.
Even as family businesses have their set of difficulties to balance, they seem to perform better than traditional companies. Given that small to large family businesses make up majority of key sectors around the world, researchers had to look at the COVID-19 impact on family businesses.
In May 2020, Banyan Global surveyed family businesses in 20 countries. Of the 190 survey responses, 89% mention that they are negatively or significantly impacted by the pandemic, with 5% saying the business is in danger of falling. Eleven percent say they are either positively impacted or unaffected by the crisis. After revisiting the family businesses in 2021, the researchers found that less business-owning families feel the negative impact of the crisis, with 66% of the respondents saying they feel significant or negative impact. Only 1% of the respondents feel they are on the verge of failing. This demonstrates the resilience of a family business, as well as their long-term view of their business. Sure, there are short-term losses, but they are generally optimistic about the business’ future.
Another impact of COVID-19 on family businesses is the sudden passing or leaving of leaders, as well an awareness of senior leaders’ mortality. This highlights the importance of having an established governance structure, be it the family, business, succession, or estate plan. Having policies and plans in place before a crisis happens helps the family and business focus their energies on overcoming the challenge rather than potential interpersonal and emotional conflicts.
Just as the pandemic has given individuals a chance to introspect and really think about what they want out of life and their work, family businesses find that in a crisis, there are a lot of opportunities also: supporting the community (through philanthropy and in-kind donations), taking care of employees (even to the point of lowering dividends or family member-employees taking pay cuts), and enhanced measures to keep employees safe.
Lastly, with the pandemic, family businesses realize the importance of investing in and making way for the next generation. In a survey among next-generation family business leaders, PWC found that among 956 respondents, 70% are already deeply engaged in the family enterprise, and 64% of them believe they can add value to ensure that their business strategy is “fit for the digital age.” Of these respondents, 36% are female (currently 18% of family business leaders are female), and 51% are aged 25–34. The next generation are digital natives that can take businesses through a digital transformation, which has become essential in a time when people are working from home, businesses are going online, and new and better technologies are being developed at a faster rate.
Where gender is concerned, up-and-coming women and young leaders can likewise be given license to lead and provided with a supportive environment for them to flourish. These women can in turn become role models for younger females in the family. Family businesses can also create and implement policies that promote gender equity, such as parental leave for men and flexible hours for parent-employees. A study by McKinsey states that in a business, there is a correlation between a diverse leadership team and better financial performance. Specifically, companies that have a gender-diverse leadership are 15% more profitable than average.
 https://johndavis.com/how-three-circles-changed-the-way-we-understand-family-business/  https://hbr.org/2016/03/why-the-21st-century-will-belong-to-family-businesses  https://www.famcap.com/the-worlds-750-biggest-family-businesses/  https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/family-businesses-experiencing-covid-19-crisis  https://www.familybusinessmagazine.com/covid-19  https://banyan.global/covid-19-crisis-mgmt-survey/  https://banyan.global/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/20200223_COVID-Survey-2-white-paper_FINAL.pdf  De Massis, A. and Rondi, E. (2020), Covid-19 and the Future of Family Business Research. J. Manage. Stud., 57: 1727-1731. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12632  https://www.scholars.northwestern.edu/en/publications/keeping-the-family-business-healthy-how-to-plan-for-continuing-gr  https://www.npr.org/2021/06/24/1007914455/as-the-pandemic-recedes-millions-of-workers-are-saying-i-quit  https://banyan.global/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/20200223_COVID-Survey-2-white-paper_FINAL.pdf  https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/services/family-business/nextgen-survey.html  https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/28261724-C6FD-A1F8-D3FD96CA2233EE71/article_2_-_step-kpmg_2020_global_fambiz_case_report.pdf  https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/business functions/organization/our insights/why diversity matters/diversity matters.pdf
COVID AND BEING POSITIVE
Laughter is the best medicine, and humor helps buffer stress. With all the anxiety we had to collectively go through in this pandemic, looking for the positives is a good exercise to counter the negativity. There are so many good things happening because of the pandemic. It has acted as a catalyst for change. Families have become closer. We have discovered the joys of cooking, gardening, and sourdough bread making. We have evaluated what we really want out of life. It’s important to be grateful for these. Because, if I may borrow a line from Dewitt Jones, “when we celebrate what’s right in the world, we will find the energy to fix what’s wrong.”