The Crisis Below the Surface: How the Pandemic Weighs on Women in Publishing
Recently, a colleague experienced an irksome response from a coworker when she could not meet with him at short notice. She felt frustrated that he seemed to show little compassion or understanding when she’s currently balancing a full-time job and homeschooling two young children. She’s not alone.
The publishing industry is facing a crisis. The last recession was tough, but the fallout from the coronavirus is expected to be even worse for the media and advertising industries. News organizations are now relying on funding from Facebook and Google for innovation, experimentation, and even payroll. We’re experiencing another perilous time in the publishing industry, one that requires intense attention as business models are shifting and important decisions are being made. As this crisis is unfolding, working mothers are facing an unprecedented challenge as well.
Women, mothers or not, are carrying more weight on their shoulders right now. That is not a knock on fathers and men as I’ve noticed lots of men (including my own husband) step up as much as they can in their households. But the reality is that women still carry the majority of the mental workload and, even under normal circumstances, that is like having another full-time job.
Even before the coronavirus, the working moms on your team were already operating with their time on the thinnest of margins, while getting paid less for it. Add in the disruption of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders and now the kids are at home all day, the Wi-Fi is tapped by class Zoom calls, Netflix, and your husband’s meetings. Lessons need to be taught and schoolwork is due. Fights are breaking out and someone has slime in their hair.
What’s more, the industry is being carried on the shoulders of these busy women. Publishers Weekly’s recent survey found that the gender composition in the publishing industry is 80% women, 19% men, and 1% nonbinary. Recent research from McKinsey found that women in media and entertainment are at equal representation with men and, at earlier stages in their career, promotion rates for women exceed those of men. In my own personal experience, my mentors and role models throughout my career have all been women and mothers.
We’re being driven by amazing, incredible, and successful women. Working mothers are efficient, decisive, and creative because they have to be. The crisis we’re facing is that the weight of it all — parenting, homeschooling, and a full-time career in an industry that demands immediate attention — is, unfortunately, going to crush many women in publishing. Ask any mother on your staff and I promise, she is struggling.
If we don’t do something about it, working mothers are going to end up burnt-out and less productive, and that will ultimately affect your bottom line. Even more concerning, this could end up affecting the long-fought-for advancements that women have made in the workplace. In fact, this is already happening in other industries with the impact of the coronavirus threatening to derail the careers of women in academia. As an industry in which women hold a greater share of management jobs, we have to do better and we have to help. Otherwise, this will become yet another crisis for the publishing industry.
The solution to a pandemic that is, among many, many other things, threatening to impact decades of advancements of gender equality at work, is not going to be simple. However, you can take steps to stop this from happening at your company and support the women on your teams right now:
- Practice and encourage a culture of empathy. Research suggests that empathetic workplaces are less stressful, have higher collaboration between employees and greater overall morale.
- Be flexible. Trust your employees to stay engaged and allow them to build their own schedule. Focus on results over availability, a constant online presence or the ability to jump into impromptu meetings.
- Survey your teams. Get feedback via a company-wide survey so you can understand which employees or departments are struggling the most. There might be an opportunity to temporarily redistribute some tasks or otherwise offer support where it's needed.
- Concern yourself with mental health. Mandate check-ins that are not focused on work. Find out how your employees are doing. If you can, establish an EAP to support access to mental health services.
- Be patient. Remember that even as things start to open up in many areas of the country, each person is still dealing with their own set of challenges. We are not all in the same boat. Practice patience.
And in the longer term, other big ideas will help keep parents engaged in the workplace.
- Consider on-site childcare. It’s not as crazy as it might sound and plenty of companies are doing it. There are tax benefits, it’s a fantastic tool for recruiting, and it’s shown to improve employee engagement and retention.
- Subsidize childcare costs. You can write it off and can offer up to $5,000 per year without it being added to the employee’s taxable income.
It goes without saying that the above suggestions should apply to all employees, not just women. Perks like these are a huge boost to your company culture, they make you a more purpose-driven organization, and help you keep pace with the cool kids. Don Harkey, the CEO of People Centric Consulting Group, reminds of the financial impact of a positive company culture as well, saying “It's not just about how your employees feel, your culture has a significant financial impact. If your employees are bought in and engaged, you will recover more quickly.”
Whether it’s working moms or anyone else, there is no greater asset than your most engaged employees. Engaged employees drive growth and innovation, both things the publishing industry needs right now. The ability of publishers to not only survive but thrive in the next 12 months (and beyond) will rely heavily on creative thinking and an ability to be agile, efficient, and decisive.
You need the women and moms on your teams right now, and they need you. With women making up such a large percentage of employment in the publishing industry, the industry cannot afford to turn its back on them. The entire concept of company culture is being redefined right now, and you can lead the way.
Lead with respect, empathy, and patience and in return you’ll receive enduring loyalty. Finally, encourage this type of thinking throughout the organization. Remind everyone to practice empathy right now, with everyone in their lives. If we make changes now, the post-COVID-19 world can look a lot different. We can all come out of this even stronger and better than before.
Melissa Chowning is the CEO of Twenty-First Digital, where she guides her clients’ digital strategies and audience development efforts to drive traffic, engagement, and retention. Formerly the Audience Development Director of D Magazine, Portland Monthly and Seattle Met, Melissa understands that the key to audience growth is also monetization. When she’s not immersed in the digital world, you’ll likely find her reading, listening to podcasts, and keeping busy with her two children, both under the age of 6.