Simple Rules from 2020 for a Better 2021

I recently gave a presentation to my lab highlighting the past year. It was subtitled “The worst year ever…” and included such gems as “survived the shutdown” and “no one had COVID.” This past year has been hard on everyone, and in particular, it's been especially hard on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as on many parents. As companies and institutions respond to the calls for action that have come out of the Black Lives Matter movement, BIPOC in industry and academia are being asked to increase their service commitments. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents everywhere have adjusted to work-from-home and learn-from-home schedules that are (in my opinion) simply impossible.

At times it has seemed like productivity has come to a halt, and other times I’m amazed at how much I’ve accomplished. As a group of female faculty in biomedical engineering discussed our struggles on Facebook, we decided it was time to make it official and share some of our conversations with a broader audience.

Our paper, Ten simple rules for women principle investigators during a pandemic, was published on October 29, 2020 in PLOS Computational Biology; as of January 26 it had 44,754 views. I would like to highlight three of the rules we can all follow, as well as the institutional changes that can help prevent this domino effect in the future. I should note that our ten rules were preceded by rule zero, which states that there are no rules. By that, we mean to say that everyone's situation is a bit different, so our rules are really just suggestions, and readers should feel free to tailor them to fit their own situation. 

Find a support group

I think this is something we can all agree is key to surviving the pandemic, but especially for those of us who are working from home. I am in my house 24 hours a day with my three kids. None of us gets a break. To say it is stressful is an understatement. Having a support network — professional and/or personal — is essential to survival. I have found comfort in my conversations with colleagues, professional Facebook groups, Twitter (so much Twitter), and family.

Institutions and companies can help but making sure such groups are supported and made available to all employees, and providing the resources needed to make the groups successful.

Learn to say "no." 

Practice with me: No! It is really hard to say no. Most of us have been trained since a very young age that it is rude to do so. I am incredibly guilty of saying yes to way too many things, and 2020 was certainly not much different. However, we do not have unlimited time and energy, and during a pandemic there are so many things that sap the little energy we have in reserve. In an effort to maintain some semblance of sanity, turn down any requests you can without negatively impact you or your career.

Institutions and companies can help us with this simply by not asking for nonessential service such as assessment reports. In addition, a lack of simple service activities during the pandemic, such as editing and reviewing, should not be penalized in future promotion decisions.

Be empathetic

The year 2020 was not great, and the COVID-19 pandemic is not nearly over yet. Early in the pandemic the effects were mostly felt by parents, but by now there is no one who has not been affected in some way. As you move through your day, have empathy for your friends, family, and colleagues. Recognize that everyone is struggling and stressed, and maybe that masked smile is just what they needed to keep moving through their day. When you have the energy, offer to take on a task for someone else.

Companies and institutions, we need you to have empathy for your employees as well. Consider all leave requests and be generous with work-from-home options. Also make sure you have resources available to support employee mental health services; some options include coffee chats, book clubs, and no-cost counseling services.

Congratulations to everyone for surviving 2020! I think that we can all agree that an easier year for 2021 would be greatly appreciated.

Curious about all 10 rules? See the complete article here.