As we pass this hard-to-fathom milestone of one year out of the office due to COVID-19, we will no doubt read many pieces on Zoom fatigue and pandemic fatigue and desires for return to a “normal” pre-COVID life. While I too feel this fatigue and intense desire for travel and normalcy, and of course I’d love to hug my extended family, I think it is important to acknowledge, reflect, and appreciate some of the beneficial aspects of work-life that have helped many women, including myself, thrive during this time of 100% telework. I have witnessed a new flexible mindset in the Department of Defense (DoD) and hope that some of the more positive changes we have observed may continue once we return to a more normal battle rhythm of in-person work.
Before I begin with all of this positivity and hope, I must acknowledge that many women have had to bear the uneven burden of domestic unpaid work during the pandemic, including childcare and remote learning support, on top of their own work or even to the detriment of their own career. I do not mean to diminish this burden or suggest that my admittedly privileged experience during the pandemic — with daycare open for most of the year for my two preschool-aged children, a job that allows me to work safely from home, the flexibility and support of my leadership at National Defense University’s Center for the Study of WMD, and an unclassified subject matter that can more easily pivot to telework — is universal, or even shared widely by other women in the defense sector. On International Women’s Day, President Biden spoke of the “intensity of purpose and mission” required to change the culture that keeps women from thriving in the military and defense world. The past year has provided us with valuable lessons and insights into how to improve culture and productivity in the Defense Department, but it must be done intentionally with an intensity of purpose and mission.
The national security community has traditionally represented a male-dominated environment with well-documented cultural issues. Work structures that encourage women to stay in a career — maternity leave, flexible work schedules, mentorship opportunities — are often not available. While the defense world can be particularly hard on working moms, it is worth noting that it is also not great for working fathers, with benefits such as parental level for some (but not all) federal employees only recently coming into effect. In fact, when I began as a DoD civilian at six months pregnant, I had the uncomfortable experience of having to ask my new federal colleagues if they would transfer their extra leave to me because there would not be enough time to build up leave of my own before my baby was born. I will be forever grateful for those generous individuals who donated their hard-earned leave, so I didn’t have to go without a paycheck while I recovered from delivery and nurtured my child during her first months.
The national security community has traditionally represented a male-dominated environment with well-documented cultural issues. Work structures that encourage women to stay in a career — maternity leave, flexible work schedules, mentorship opportunities — are often not available.
When on March 12, 2020, we received the notification that we must telework from home until further notice, parents were thrown headlong into a period of navigating work with children at home, uncertainty about the support we would receive in this scenario, and fear of an unknown disease. During this year, however, I have been surprised and relieved to see that the distance of a virtual work format offers a salve for some of the interpersonal challenges of being a woman and mom in the national security community and a jolt into a new way of thinking for the often-rigid Department of Defense.
ONLINE MEETING EQUALITY
A common complaint in male-dominated fields (and this includes defense) is the incivility of being spoken over and other practices and bad habits that effectively silence women’s voices. In fact, men interrupt 33% more often when speaking to women than men, and it is an all too familiar indignity I have witnessed and experienced in my over-a-decade as a defense contractor and DoD civilian. On virtual platforms like Zoom or Teams, though, the mic can only reasonably handle one person at a time. Therefore, we’ve adapted to raise our hand, to take turns, not to talk over one another. This fosters a more egalitarian meeting experience where the person who raises a hand gets the opportunity to be heard — without having to edge into a conversation dominated by ramblers or mustering the courage to make a point without stepping on more senior members of a team. Related, virtual meetings have pushed us to communicate while on mute and to actively show our support for ideas through exaggerated head nods and hand gestures (the what-an-excellent-idea “thumbs up” or the way-to-go silent “round of applause” or the end-of-meeting “wave goodbye”). These physical acknowledgments subconsciously support our colleagues in little ways that are small but empowering.
Rather than reactively chasing the latest email request or pulling someone into an impromptu meeting (that we now realize really COULD have been an email), there is a focus on scheduling time even for small discussions and being thoughtful about the meeting agenda. This is partly an effort to avoid dropping in to a person’s space unannounced, since many of our colleagues still have children learning from home or other dependents under their constant care. In my own experience as a researcher, if I want to work with a collaborator, I must actively reach out because hallway conversations no longer exist. This has, perhaps counterintuitively, led to the benefit of working with colleagues outside my DC bubble. I have also seen this in the intentionality of diverse panels (both because of the increased frequency of online events and because one must think consciously about who to invite, rather than who you pass in the halls). This approach may easily revert when we return to in-person work and our interactions shrink back to those we physically see regularly. The intentional practice of collaborating broadly with individuals who represent diverse perspectives is one we should value and continue to pursue.
BUTTS-IN-SEATS ≠ PRODUCTIVITY
The 9-to-5 “butts in seats” attitude at the Pentagon, a culture that values traditional work hours, has long discouraged hybrid work models. My office was lucky enough to have one-day-a-week telework agreements in place prior to the pandemic, but that is not the norm in the DoD. For a year we’ve demonstrated how productive we — even in the defense world — can be from home. Now that more leaders understand that telework is a viable option, we might shift away from the belief that those who are not physically in the office are not truly working, and generous telework flexibility will remain as a regular offering.
THE AUTHENTIC SELF AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF FAMILY
Over this last year we’ve had the endearing experience of seeing our colleagues’ kids (or spouses or dogs!) as they drop into our meetings for a guest appearance. As a result, men and women alike are being seen as more than workers. They are being seen as multidimensional humans who have homes and hobbies and families. The very fact that men too have been seen with a kid popping over a shoulder asking for Zoom support or a simple hug means there is a new appreciation across the board for family. It may serve to destigmatize the act of sharing that we have families — something many moms in defense are hesitant to reveal in the workplace lest they seem soft or unprofessional — and may also serve to encourage all defense employees to bring their authentic selves to the workplace.
Additionally, without the daily commute in and out of the city, I have been given the gift of time. A Stanford survey finds of the more than 60 million hours per work day saved from commuting, Americans invest about 35% of that time savings back into their primary jobs. From my own experience, I have spent a good chunk of that extra time researching, and writing, and publishing. My husband (who is an equal partner) and I have also cherished the extra time spent with our girls. I am optimistic we can normalize this work-life balance achieved during the pandemic. As we return to in-person work, I hope the 7 am side sessions at conferences to discuss issues such as gender equality (which, due to the early morning time slot means that parents, mainly women, with children and daycare schedules cannot attend) will either be replaced by virtual sessions or, better still, placed on the main agenda. And perhaps our meeting, conference, and work day design more broadly will shift to acknowledge that regardless of parenting status, each of us is a full human, with obligations both at work and at home.
I appreciate the fact that I am incredibly privileged and that not everyone — in fact, very few — has been able to self-actualize during the pandemic. Nevertheless, I witnessed improvements in how the Defense Department granted flexibility to members of its civilian workforce during this time of telework that I believe improved productivity and morale, and it makes me hopeful for the future of our field. When we do return to a more regular, in-office presence, I implore us all to remember and integrate many of these new lessons into the way we work. If we can keep hold of some of the clarity we’ve found during a chaotic and unpredictable year, there may be permanent improvements from what we hope is a temporary moment.
Sarah Jacobs Gamberini is a Policy Fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.