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Resilience will bring women back to work — realism will help them thrive

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-07-16
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For the past year and half, I, like so many Americans, have looked forward to the return of many of the activities the pandemic put restrictions on: seeing extended family and friends, travel, going out to eat, and most especially seeing all my students on campus again. But despite the “Great Reopening” being finally here, many Americans are feeling anxious about the transition — especially women, who have been the most dramatically impacted by the blending of home and work life during pandemic shut downs.

A recent American Psychological Association poll found that half of people say they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction post pandemic. And this makes sense. We as humans are hardwired to crave certainty, and studies show that feelings of control are likely a psychological and biological necessity. So just as the sudden shutdowns at the start of the pandemic threw our lives into flux, this new period of intense transition, coming out of over a year of relative isolation, seems unnatural.

And yet despite knowing this science, I can’t help but smile when I think about the irony of this moment. In many ways, transitions are one thing in life that are certain to occur. The media has paid a lot of attention to the unique hardships facing women right now, from job loss to workplace burnout to juggling family responsibilities while working from home. And while this attention should be paid, we should also consider the fact that women might just be primed to make it through this time stronger than before, thanks in large part to the way transition shapes their identity.

As a cognitive scientist and head of a women’s college, I have built my career around understanding how women can best thrive through challenging times. From a psychological standpoint, women's familiarity with dealing with times of transition, and the lack of control they often face in the process, gives valuable experience to fall back on and draw from when dealing with unfamiliar circumstances. Compared to men, studies unsurprisingly show women experience more change with the birth of a child, especially to their self concept, and are more likely to use this change to adjust the way they show up in various aspects of their life, like at work.

The ability to effectively manage the way we see ourselves through periods of change is an important one as we consider the return to “normal life.” As offices reopen, employers must consider how identities forged during the past year will fit back into office life. Studies that have explored workplace stress and organizational change have found that individuals are more likely to respond with a feeling of stress when changes to the workplace result in a change in employees' own self identity. Think things like a change in titles or managerial duties. For the past year working mothers especially have had to embrace more fully than ever before the duality of their identity as both a mother and an employee. In the return to work, forcing people to revert back to old roles will likely add additional stress, as this newly created pandemic-era self identity is forced to be reconfigured yet again.

The good news is that by embracing multiple facets of identity, women are also building resiliency. Research shows that individuals are able to maintain a stronger sense of self during periods of stress when they define them through multiple identities — mother, runner, scientist, manager — allowing them to maintain stronger senses of self when one facet of their being is challenged. This has also been shown to build resilience in times of uncertainty, giving women another leg up in this reentry. Personally, I am a mother, college president and scientist. My ability to celebrate multiple facets of my personality allows me to find value in myself when one aspect of my identity is uncertain. Being able to cycle through these identities allows women to maintain solid ground when parts of themselves are challenged.

While this reentry may be an anxious time as Americans deal with the uncertainty of the next few months, life circumstances and research show that for women, celebrating the identities we have created through our pandemic year provide us with a unique advantage when it comes to coping with this major change. What’s more, women can prosper amidst reopenings, especially if we continue to encourage employers to celebrate the multifaceted identities we have all built for ourselves during this unprecedented year.

Dr. Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist by training and serves as the president of Barnard College at Columbia University. She is the author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.”

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