For many, 2020 felt like a “missing year.” Two years later, as we build a bridge to normalcy, women engineers in leadership positions are energized — and newly prioritizing work/life balance and mental health.
By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor
2020 came at us all at once: COVID-19; natural disasters; and political, social, and economic upheaval. A near-universal experience of fearing for safety, feeling overwhelmed, plunged into working from home, juggling the demands of child and elder care yet still moving work forward as normally as possible when nothing — nothing — was normal.
But out of that crucible of stress may come a new resilience. Throughout the WE21 conference, panels of women engineers, from executives in multinational companies to early-career women, held frank discussions about mental health, work/life balance, and well-being. Women leaders shared their own stories and discussed leadership with renewed empathy, vulnerability, and emotional intelligence — and how they learned to proactively listen, respond, and look through the lenses of others.
Lauren Stevens, vice president, Northrop Grumman Corporation, is based at the company’s Palmdale, California, site, where employees work on multiple essential programs for the U.S. Department of Defense. “I always thought of myself as an empathetic, servant leader, and worked hard to emulate those traits,” Stevens said. “As a result of the pandemic, my servant leadership style as site leader changed, and adapted for the better. I had to be responsive to each employee’s needs, whether they were onsite or virtual. Employees wanted to speak with the person in charge, and I didn’t delegate those conversations. I thought it was important for those interactions to be personal and empathetic; our people needed to hear the leader’s voice because they were scared.
“It stretched my leadership endurance to the core … and made me a much better leader,” she said. “I would not have traded that experience for anything.”
Reaching out, creating safe spaces
“Our CEO, Thomas Polen, realized that working from home, we were never ‘off’ and there were people burning out, even in his own leadership team,” Anita Bestelmeyer, senior director, corporate computer-aided engineering, Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), said.
In one of the virtual global town halls attended by everyone in the multinational medical technology company, Polen made a point of sharing his own ways of maintaining work/life balance. “Employees were urged to simplify — try to reserve quiet time in the evenings,” Bestelmeyer said. “If an email didn’t need to be sent right away, it could be drafted and sent the next morning. If you need to work after hours, understand that others may not. Don’t expect everyone to have the same way of getting time in and work done.”
BD’s leadership also encouraged open discussion of mental health and well-being. “Now, we hear high-level leaders in our organization speaking out about how they deal with anxieties and stress,” Bestelmeyer said. “If you’re not good in yourself, you can’t be good for anyone else, and as leaders, we are having the conversations that make it OK to talk about these things.”
Employees welcomed the shift. “It just made everyone more human,” she added. “Seeing leadership opening these discussions, making employee assistance resources available, saying, ‘How can I help with your workload?’ — it was a big deal.”
On her own, Bestelmeyer reached out to normally outgoing employees, who sometimes felt the effects of isolation more than others. “I kept encouraging them to find other ways to make contact and team build in a different, nontraditional way, to keep that sense of camaraderie and being part of something bigger,” she said. “We continued to have our team meetings, but with informal interaction between people in smaller groups. That really helped maintain a sense of team when we were isolated at home.”
At Northrop Grumman, Stevens also made a point of personally engaging with people — physically distanced, and face-to-face — whenever feasible, as a way to boost morale and relieve tension in stressful times. “Members of my leadership team and I met with small groups of people across the entire site and held a site review/recognition event,” she said. “We held about 70 of these one-hour meetings, covering thousands of employees across all shifts. For our hourly employees, we recorded one of the events for managers to play for staff. We made each event as happy and engaging as possible.”
Providing strength and support
“As a woman and a mother, I truly appreciate working for an organization that makes health and wellness a top priority,” Stevens said. “I think we can all agree the last 18 months have taken a mental toll on all of us. I like to take a pulse check with our teams and remind them that when their batteries are depleted, we offer free, confidential counseling for issues like stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, relationships, communication, and parenting.”
Bestelmeyer also emphasized the value of support, especially among team members. “I think that women can tend to want to be there for everyone, whether it’s the kids, a spouse, aging parents — whatever it may be, we’re trying to be the be-all, end-all,” she said. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘Maybe I do need to focus on my elderly mom, so I’m going to back off a little bit on what I can do for a while.’ That’s when you need a strong team to rely on. People who know you’ll do the same thing for them when it’s their turn.”
Many of Bestelmeyer’s team members have been with her long term, some for decades. “Over that time, each of us has gone through some kind of struggle,” she said. “My mom needed my help for a long time before she passed away, and others have had significant stresses and life transitions. When we go through something like that, it’s so important to know that team support is there. Everyone has gone through something life changing over these past two years. And we’re sharing those experiences now.”
Resilience and recovery
In 2017, a wildfire ripped through Santa Rosa, California, destroying whole neighborhoods and damaging the headquarters of Keysight Technologies Inc., a global manufacturer of electronics test and measurement equipment. The families of 119 Keysight employees lost their homes.
Luciana Taylor, senior director of Keysight’s PathWave software solutions, was one of them. She, her husband, and two children narrowly escaped the fire, losing everything they owned in one night. It was a long road to recovery and rebuilding, but that journey has made her more resilient.
With so many people reeling in the fire’s aftermath, Keysight created what Taylor calls “an instantaneous community,” putting together a distribution center stocked with food, clothing, and necessities for displaced employees and their families. “We also developed support groups, and leadership provided facilities for us,” she said. “Many of us were fighting with insurance companies, and they brought in professional assistance, and made lawyers available. There was also mental health counseling, in person and on the phone. They really supported us in an amazing way.”
“I think we gained an ability to predict and know when to reach out to folks during the pandemic because we lived through the wildfires,” Taylor said. “Because we went through that, a different level of outreach and support was put in place that came from the C-suite down. A lot of us developed a ‘muscle’ for caring about the employee first. Maybe it’s something you have to experience, where you feel like your entire world has changed.”
Three years later, Taylor drew on that experience during the pandemic, sharing four things that helped her then, and to help others now: It’s OK to grieve, prioritize getting better, rely on your network, and create your own road map to recovery.
“It’s OK to live the moment you’re in, or to feel hopeless at times, but if you’ve been giving back to your network and support system all along, it will be there when you need to draw from it,” she said. “That really made a huge difference for us.”
Taylor’s road map is rooted in her vision for her children. “After the fire, it was actually a cleansing,” she said. “Even though we had nothing, they became different kids. They no longer asked for everything — they didn’t need that stuff anymore. They also became more conscientious about donating to people who had less. That was our road map: give back, head up high, we write our own destinies, and let’s make it a fun ride to a better place.”
Taylor’s plan for her kids’ pandemic recovery is similar. “You will be back at school,” she said. “You will see your friends again. I will be back at work meetings. What is the next goal? Visualize that and build positively toward it.”
COVID-19’s Impact on Women in Engineering
In 2020, SWE surveyed its global membership to gain an understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on the professional and personal lives of women in engineering. The report, written by Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE associate director of research, and Ursula Nguyen, a doctoral student in STEM education at The University of Texas at Austin, focused on responses received from more than 1,700 women and queer/nonbinary respondents.
A follow-up survey was conducted one year later, with 603 responses. The 2021 survey focused on the responses received from women and queer/nonbinary people who made up 99% of the respondents, comparing them with those obtained the previous year.
Some of the news is good: From the most recent report, in 2021, 81% of respondents remained at the same organization, with 12% moving to new jobs and 2% being laid off. Sixty-eight percent approved or highly approved of their employer’s response to the pandemic, and 92% felt their employer adequately communicated how COVID-19 concerns were being addressed.
In the 2020 report, however, more than half of respondents in the workforce reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their personal opportunities and interpersonal relationships with professional colleagues, and 43% reported finding fewer professional opportunities. And younger women engineers reported greater dissatisfaction with their work/life balance.
The report’s recommendations for employers echo what Bestelmeyer, Taylor, and Stevens and their companies are actively doing:
- Ensure employees have what they need to remotely work, train, and continue professional development
- Provide resources to encourage work/life balance
- Establish regular check-ins with employees to maintain connection to the organization, and to be heard and seen
- Allow scheduling flexibility, to help engineers manage child and elder care
Perhaps most importantly, the report’s authors wrote, “Employers should maintain due diligence to mitigate bias in hiring and promotion decisions. With most of these processes now occurring virtually, these decisions can be easily influenced by such biases. We learn more each day about the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on those who are underrepresented or marginalized, and the engineering sector is not immune to potential rollbacks of our diversity and inclusion progress.”
In this context, it’s worth noting that the survey indicated that 31% of professional women engineers reported getting talked over, interrupted, or ignored more frequently during virtual meetings than those held in person.
A recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS), “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” also touched upon this. In a discussion of the study at WE21, Maria Lund Dahlberg, study director, NAS, said, “While progress has been made in the representation of women in STEM, and that progress is encouraging, it is fragile and prone to setback, especially in times of crisis, such as what occurred in 2020 and continues today.”
Being seen, and helping others feel visible
Like Stevens and Bestelmeyer, empathy and proactive listening are now integral to Taylor’s leadership style. “Before COVID, I never had my camera on, even though we were already having remote one-on-ones on several continents,” she said. “But when the pandemic hit, I made sure to have regular one-on-ones with cameras on, and made a point of starting every conversation on a personal note. Just structuring that personal pause, the ‘How are you?’ where before, I would just jump into the work.”
By being visible herself while also seeing others on her global teams, Taylor learned a great deal. “For example, Greater China’s culture is very family oriented. During the pandemic, the government did not allow travel, and for many it was the first time in their lives that they could not spend traditional holidays with family. It had a tremendous emotional impact on them. I would never have known, had I not asked, ‘How are you?’ As a result, we were able to hold a virtual team holiday, where the Keysight family got together and shared our holiday traditions. It really helped.”
During one-on-one virtual meetings, Taylor learned what her reports were personally going through. “In a team setting, people are more private, and also cultures are different in how outspoken a person will be,” she said. “But one on one, I discovered more about individuals, and could prioritize work to help them navigate transitions or stress they were going through.”
Taylor, who has managed global teams for most of her 22-year Keysight career, won’t be turning off her camera anytime soon. “One of my biggest teams is in China and Asia Pacific. Had there been no pandemic, it’s unlikely I would ever have seen or gotten to know them as I do now, because we had these little remote team-building events — not work, just fun — games like ‘two truths and a lie,’ or just sharing where we would travel first when restrictions were lifted. I can’t believe how many of us are going to the nearest Disneyland.”
Not everyone loves the camera. “When people are reluctant or shy, I always say, ‘Hey guys, I want to see your smiling faces; why don’t we just do a quick team picture together?’” Taylor said. “Everybody turns the cameras on and waves — it just helps us get to know each other a little bit better.”
Mental Health and Well-Being Apps: For Women, by Women
Lists of life’s top stressors vary, but all include the death of a loved one, divorce, moving, major illness, and job loss. In addition to the pandemic, some of us have also experienced one or more such life-altering transitions, each of which can seriously impact mental and physical health. Can artificial intelligence help women take a moment for healing? Here are three apps of many trying to do just that:
SHINE: Founded in 2016 by Marah Lidey and Naomi Hirabayashi, who became friends while serving as the only high-level women of color at their workplace, Shine has touch points that encourage reflection and thought, including a morning meditation, and stories that help listeners relax and sleep. Shine’s AI takes life experiences, identity, and geopolitics and their effects into account — “an app that checks in on you.”
EXHALE: This app explores five categories for daily mindful practice, including affirmations, guided visualizations, breathing, and meditations. Realizing that most well-being apps are white-owned, and narrated, creator Katara McCarty designed EXHALE for Black, indigenous, and women of color (BIWOC), to address their unique challenges and stresses as they navigate through life.
SANVELLO: A top-rated app for stress, anxiety, and depression, with 3 million subscribers, this one features Roxane Battle, vice president of advocacy and community of Sanvello Health, a provider of insurance-covered behavioral health care services serving 40 million people. Battle hosts an in-app video feature, which helps listeners increase their mental well-being through relatable and empathetic storytelling. Battle focuses on “helping people develop a personal plan to build resiliency and find joy in life, especially during difficult times of transition.”
Browse the full NAS report here: https://bit.ly/3IDOtRm
See the SWE survey here: https://swe.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/FINAL_SWE-CPC-COVID-19-August-2021.pdf
Leadership development and mentoring
Up-and-coming women leaders may be working in an even more rapidly changing environment. “There’s always going to be something,” Bestelmeyer said. “But dealing with ambiguity and evolving situations is so critical these days.”
In addition to leading her global team, Bestelmeyer is program lead for BD’s technology leadership development program, a group of 24 associates, mostly women, being recruited as future R&D leaders. “One of the key things we look for while interviewing is that ability to deal with ambiguity and change. You have to keep redirecting and keep looking for opportunities — because every challenge is an opportunity. During this two-year period, there’s been many, many things they’ve been put through. And I’d say their performance has been better than ever.”
For Stevens, insights gained during the pandemic have deepened her mentorship of women at Northrop Grumman. “I focus more on their psychological safety,” she said. “I believe that being in the right state of mind helps you perform better at work. I focus more on their state of mind and overall well-being during mentoring sessions. This approach, which works for me when I am mentored, increases trust and psychological safety, so my mentees feel comfortable opening up about how they are truly handling what is happening in the world, and how that translates into where they want to be professionally.”
Leadership with empathy, that listens proactively, is willing to be vulnerable and visible enough to help others feel seen, has been key to organizations coming through the pandemic intact, successful, and optimistic about the future — even though there’s still a long road ahead.
Stevens added a word of advice for moving forward, better equipped for the next time we find ourselves in a new crucible of stress: “Take care of yourselves and each other. This has been such a challenging time for so many of us, and it’s important that we allow ourselves grace, uplift one another, and allow our purpose to help drive us through life.”