What Barbie can teach us about supporting women in the workplace
‘It’s literally impossible to be a woman’
Barbie, the year’s biggest blockbuster film, has something to teach the corporate world about supporting women and preventing burnout and fatigue in the workplace.
For Alanna Schultz (pictured), senior vice president, head of sales and client management at Swiss Re, “Barbie” carries a profound and universal message about women’s experiences.
“I watched Barbie with my two little girls,” she said. “There’s a soliloquy from America Ferrera about how it’s so impossible to be a woman because of all the demands [placed on them]. I think that we’ve all thought that at some point in our lifetime.”
‘We always have to be extraordinary’
The powerful speech became an online sensation, helping propel “Barbie” to more than $1 billion in box office sales.
In it, Ferrera’s character Gloria lists the conflicting demands that women face in all aspects of their lives, including their careers.
“You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass,” the character tells Barbie. “You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.”
The dissonance struck a chord with Schultz, who is set to speak in a panel on fighting fatigue and burnout at the Women in Insurance New York summit this September.
“I think there probably isn’t a woman in this world who couldn’t relate or resonate with the things that [Gloria] said,” Schultz told Insurance Business.
The first step to creating the right support structures for women in the workplace is acknowledging those demands, according to Schultz.
“I think there should be acknowledgement from managers, teams, and leaders that you can’t expect women to figure it out on their own,” she said. “We actually have to help women, and we have to create policies, and create an environment and team culture to help people get through this.”
Educating leaders and decision-makers about women’s experiences at different life stages is critical to finding solutions that can accommodate women’s needs and help them thrive.
“I’ve met women who are in their 20s and think they can’t have children because things are so busy at work, and that is beyond me,” Schultz said. “These thoughts are real. I don’t know how to solve them, but being aware that they exist is the first step.
“We should be thinking about how we can help women, how we can structure a job so that they can have children, and how we can support them in their most pivotal times, such as building a family or advancing their career.”
Embedding flexibility into organizational culture
Reflecting on her own experiences with fatigue during the pandemic, Schultz said Swiss Re was at the forefront of helping its employees through the crisis.
“Swiss Re’s vision is to make the world more resilient through risk transfer and keeping and transferring risk,” said Schultz. “But during COVID, it became pretty apparent that we could not make the world more resilient if we did not help our employees be more resilient first.”
From establishing meeting-free Fridays to creating hybrid work schedules, Swiss Re used a variety of tools to foster flexibility beyond the pandemic, she said.
In the wider industry, organizations must embrace a culture of transparency and acceptance for flexible working, including parental leave policies.
“Flexibility can be adopted through either formal or informal or informal policies, such as job sharing in roles. In Swiss Re, we have this policy called ‘own the way you work’, which gives employees the autonomy and empowerment to decide how they want to work,” Schultz said.
“But it’s not enough for the industry to put these HR policies in place. It’s another thing to embrace them in your work culture.”
For instance, while many insurance companies offer generous paternity leave, it may be “frowned upon” to take extended time off work, Schultz pointed out.
“Making [paternity leave] socially acceptable and highlighting that it’s okay to take your full leave is important,” Schultz said.
Register for the Women in Insurance New York Summit and join the conversation on fighting fatigue and burnout. The annual conference, which celebrates the achievements of woman in insurance, takes place on September 21, 2023.
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