By: Robyn W. Porterfield and Bob Rose, Rose + Porterfield

Our economy is slowly getting past covid – but not as quickly as many of us had hoped. Many businesses are still struggling, and according to research women owned businesses have, in many ways, been hit harder.

Some reasons for the greater impact have been financial.  The Brookings Institute reports that, because of the size of the organization or the institution they bank with, women-owned businesses did not benefit as much from Paycheck Protection Programs as their male counterparts. And articles abound talking about how women’s careers got derailed when children started remote schooling.

Among our female clients, we’ve noticed that other things, like social and personality factors, are affecting women and men differently in these unparalleled times, even those in the same leadership roles within their organization.

Below are a few reasons why the pandemic hit women harder—and how women executives and entrepreneurs can shift to evolve advantageously.

The Observation/Research: In general women are more empathetic and caring – for good and bad

The “why” may be under debate, but many studies suggest a gender bias in empathy and emotional intelligence. There is a part of our brain that senses signals from our entire body. Neuroscientists say this area, called the insula, is the source of our emotions—and it’s where our empathy lives. Simply put, empathy is a mimicking of sorts. Our brain mimics what the other person is feeling, and our insula reads this and tells us what the feeling is.

This is where we see the difference between women and men. When women are with someone who is upset, our brain tend to stay with those feelings. But men do something different. They may sense the feelings temporarily, but quickly switch to other areas of their brain and start problem solving about whatever is causing the person to be upset. Sound familiar?

Research suggests that these differences may develop in early childhood and that increased empathy or the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes emotionally” continues into adulthood.

We see this in leaders. Worry about furloughing employees is hard on everyone, but we’ve noticed our male leaders create emotional distance from the difficult decisions they must make for the health of the company. Our female clients will look at the same organizational chart and see not just individual boxes, but people within those boxes and therefore find it much more difficult to distance themselves from the effects financial troubles have on their team/company.

The Shift in Perspective Required: It’s not all on you

Taking responsibility is part of being a leader so it’s natural to feel like you are responsible for everything that happens within. But there is a difference between the two. While you are responsible, you are not all powerful. You do not have control over everyone and everything. People have free will and make bad decisions—yes, even you at times. Nature is unpredictable, and completely unexpected things can happen—like an outbreak of a novel virus. Good leaders understand they must relinquish control to a great extent. Surrounding yourself with a good team is crucial. Teams are important because, 1.  You can’t do it all, 2.  You are not an expert at everything, and 3.  We need other people around us to be better and see things we may not.

The Observation/Research: Women do best with real, not virtual, contact

Some of this is the nature of the types of businesses women are likely to own and lead. Women disproportionally own “live” experience companies and other services that cannot be executed over zoom

We can all agree that not everyone thrives in a virtual environment; for many of us those video meetings have been stressful, tiring, unproductive, and time consuming. Virtual means “not quite real” and for our female clients that has certainly been true. Relative to men, our female clients tell us they rely a lot on non-verbal cues, body language, and body and head positioning to assign meaning to conversations. They naturally “read” the other person by these cues. All of which is missed when they can only see someone’s head and shoulders in an unnatural setting.

The Shift in Perspective Required: To the extent that virtual meetings continue, set up some rules

Many of our clients have multiple offices and people scattered geographically which has always meant someone needed to be on video—and these meetings have always had problems. Especially in hybrid meetings where some people were physically present and others not, the on-camera people could get lost. My personal approach is to be mindful of my facial expressions but more importantly, to speak to my emotion. If I’m confused, I will tell the group. If I don’t agree, I don’t just subtly close my notebook. I tell people I disagree. If something makes me mad, I’ll even say that too. Verbalizing what people might miss helps others—especially those who are not good at catching non-verbal cues—understand the world around them. It’s good training and good communication.

The Observation/Research: Women will more often personalize failure

A great deal of research shows that women are more likely than men to see failure as their fault. On one hand, a lot of people have experienced failure in the last couple of years – but men are more likely to see that failure as situational and women to see it as personal, even a personal failing.

The Shift in Perspective Required: Look at the problem as an issue separate from you

Everyone fails, regardless of how thoughtful, intelligent, savvy or experienced we are. Look at failure as a problem to solve, not a statement on your self-worth.

Take an issue—even one that seems quite personal—and “put it in the center of the table”; it’s not about you it’s about the issue. You can do this mentally, but I’ll tell clients to literally put the spreadsheet, document that outlines the issue, etc. in the middle of the table. If you have a team, have your team there surrounding the table. Orienting outside of yourself can help you see the issue as separate from you and can help you better problem-solve without personalizing.

Final Thoughts

It’s good to understand our behaviors, especially when we are trying to effect change. When you shift your perspective, you minimize your empathetic reaction in a practical way that allows you to accomplish goals and problem solve objectively. Yes, Covid may have hit women business leaders harder but if you’re reading this, it did not beat you. Now that we are moving forward, use this as an opportunity to strengthen your skills and emerge even stronger.

About the Authors

Bob Rose and Robyn Porterfield are experienced psychologists, managers, executive coaches, and authors. But above all, they’re experts in people.

From large-scale corporations to multi-generational family businesses, Rose + Porterfield has helped hundreds of organizations spanning nearly every industry with almost every work-related people problem. When organizations are dealing with challenges like major organizational change, workplace conflict, legal issues, team communication, and professional development, forward-thinking companies turn to Rose + Porterfield. For more,