Padma Lakshmi Wants to Help Women Get Back to Work


The last 12 months have been defined by a streak of unending chaos. We’ve witnessed a virus ravish the world and take countless lives, an insurrection at our Capitol, and the closing of countless businesses due to our buckling economy. We’re also just beginning to feel the aftershocks of the COVID-19 earthquake. The burden of this instability has primarily fallen on women.

“According to the Department of Labor, women are exiting the labor market at four times the rate of men,” Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president, and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said in a statement. Mason originally coined the term SHEcession, a recession that disproportionately affects women, in May 2020. She also said, “No matter how resilient or strong, women—and particularly women of color—are feeling the brunt of this recession due to systemic inequalities and stereotypes such as a women’s role in society as the homemaker or the caregiver.”

Our reality is bleak, but in a glimmer of hope, author, activist, and host Padma Lakshmi, alongside other women leaders like Tamron Hall, Maria Shriver, and Arianna Huffington—the HBIC Avengers—are joining forces with No7’s Unstoppable Together and IWPR to improve the lives of women affected by job loss. The Unstoppable Together Summit, which will take place on Feb. 24 from 4 to 8 p.m. EST, aims to provide free, easily accessible educational resources.

Ahead of the summit, chatted with Lakshmi about the realities women are facing right now, how she thinks we can better support working mothers, and her advice for navigating the workplace.

Why was it so important for you to partner with Unstoppable Together and speak at the summit?

I think what we’ve seen in the pandemic is that women are much more likely to leave their work in order to take care of their families. And I myself, I’m self-employed, I run a business, but I’ve had to divert my attention from my work, and all of the things that involves, to be with my daughter, who is homeschooling. And it was a real challenge. There were whole weeks where I just, week on week, where I had to just put my work aside. It’s very difficult to feel productive at the end of that, but you are being productive. It’s just we tend to value work outside the home, not inside the home. And so I saw the video that Unstoppable Together made, which is totally female-produced, and it’s very moving.

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The cinematography is beautiful. But most importantly, it has some great stats in it. Women are, for example, three times more likely to sacrifice their work for their families and the family’s needs. And there are actually four times the amount of women dropping out of the workforce compared to men. And so the No7 program of Unstoppable Together, along with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, is trying to help women get back to work. And so this is something that’s very close to my heart.

IWPR found women are being affected in larger numbers because of the industries that are predominantly female. Did that make this issue even more important to you?

I’ve been working on Open for Good with the James Beard Foundation and trying to help restaurants. The restaurant industry is the second-largest private employer in the country. And women tend to be more in service-oriented jobs, whether it’s retail, whether it’s in the restaurant business, whether it’s in all these different industries that have really taken a hit. And if you’re in a situation where you already make less than your partner, things like logical fiscal decisions for your family, for you to be the one who leads this work in order to address the child-rearing and the child carrying, the child education, that most of us haven’t been able to send our children to school. And then I know for myself, my daughter has been home certainly from March to September, but even now she went back to hybrid, and then she came back, and now she’s homeschooling.

You have to be nimble and flexible, but for a lot of women, that is not an option with their job. And so it can be very demoralizing. So I think that what No7 is doing in this beautiful job summit, this Unstoppable Together Job Summit, is really fantastic. I think it’s really cool that they’re having all of these sessions that coach women to get back into the job market and just see what is out there for them. The Female Quotient is doing panels on interview skills.

“You have to be nimble and flexible, but for a lot of women, that is not an option.”

And if you’ve just been at your job, and you actually have been in one place for a long time, you necessarily haven’t had the practice of interviewing for a long time. There are also sessions on picking your career, and then also just understanding how to rewrite your job loss story. A lot of us see what’s happened to us as a negative understandably, and it can set us back just psychologically as we’re talking or writing about it.

But there’s a way to speak about it from strength. For example, as an employer, if I were interviewing different applicants for a job, and I thought that there was an applicant that was really qualified, but there was this huge gap in her resume, I would ask her about it. And if she just was very forthright and said, “Listen, the pandemic hit. One of us had to get out of the workforce and take care of our children, and that was our first priority. And in that time, I have been keeping my skills up through A, B, and C, but obviously, my main focus was making sure that our children were educated, were healthy, were on track, and didn’t fall behind.” I mean, I would have a lot of respect for that woman because I would’ve made the same decision and indeed, in my own instances, have made that decision.

Childcare is also a barrier for many women returning to work. What can be done to better support working moms?

It’s a huge, huge issue. And it’s interesting to me that it affects women so disproportionately to men. And it’s a hard issue. I think from a policy standpoint, we have to talk about it with legislation and policy, and really look at what is the best to do, and also incentivize employers to have childcare programs that can help women executives. Because from the standpoint of being female and being a parent, it’s very hard to square that with your ambitions. But from a corporation standpoint, you’re also missing out on a really big part of the talent pool if you can’t solve this problem.

I wish I had a magic answer for you, but I really think we need flexible hours. We have seen very concretely how a lot of the people that used to go to the office can work from home. What I would do, during school hours, is help Krishna. And then I would go and wake up early and do a couple of hours, and then do a couple of hours when she had a break, and sort of toggle back and forth. But if I had a boss who needed that answer right away, it might’ve been a problem. So I think we have to rethink what productivity is.

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For me, it’s not so much how hard or how long somebody works, it’s how effectively they work. And all of a sudden, when you have to get it done because you need to be present for your kids, you find a way. And I think if you had an employer or a corporation you worked for that was empathic to that, I think it would make everyone’s life easier and it would make for more productivity.

On top of the recession, being a woman in the workplace isn’t easy: We’re more likely to be fired or harassed and have fewer opportunities. What advice do you have for women navigating this difficult reality?

I think you have to make sure that you walk into any situation or any employment from day one feeling strong. A lot of times women are conditioned to add things at the end of sentences like, “Does that make sense?” Or, “Do you know what I mean?” And it really takes a lot of training, internal training, to say, “I am valuable. My expertise is necessary. And I got this job because I was qualified. I don’t have to diminish my own wellbeing in the workplace in order to do my job.” I think it sets the tone right from the beginning. And it requires courage, which when you’re older, you hopefully get more wisdom, but what I’m saying is a difficult thing to do, I realize, especially when you’re younger. But it’s a muscle like everything else.

It takes practice. It takes skill. It’s hard when you’re nervous to do all that. But just pushing yourself to do it in big ways and small from day one can be a really great exercise that leads to advocating for yourself in much bigger ways and where it really counts professionally for raises, for promotions.

Just last week, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female VP. Can you speak to the historic moment for you and what this could mean for others?

I think it’s fabulous. I watched the inauguration with my daughter. She was homeschooling. And I just told her teacher, like, “She’s not going to be in this period because I really wanted her to watch it.” We watched it together. I held her hand. I mean, it was very emotional. Regardless of what your political views, as a woman, and even as a man who is forward-thinking, you should be happy.

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I’m sure that just having someone of a different gender with their own set of experience coming into the White House and coming into government at that high level will shape and evolve a policy, not only for women but for everybody. And obviously, I run a foundation for women’s reproductive health, so I’m thinking about those healthcare issues. There’s a lot of misogyny not only in corporate America but in healthcare. And so just having a woman who’s gone through her own life experience, I think brings a new perspective into that office that we really need.

How do you talk to your daughter about these issues?

I have those conversations all the time in an age-appropriate way. And I think I can talk to her all I want, and I do. But more than what I say, it’s what I do, because I’m her first point of reference.

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I have taken her to every woman’s issue project that I’ve been involved with. The Unstoppable Together, the No 7 initiative, will be digital. So I’ll make her watch it. But I think that any time you can teach your children by action, it is often more effective than with words, but I try to do it in whatever way I can.

What can we be doing more of, right now at home, to support women affected by the recession?

Just to get the awareness out there, because we like to think that the work is done about equality. We like to think that it’s pretty good now. You’re seeing women in all kinds of positions of leadership. There are more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies that are women today than there ever were. So there are good things. There’s great news. But we have to keep the awareness up that we still have a lot to go, and we’re not done. And what’s happened with the pandemic is that it is pushing those gains we’ve made backward so that the pay gap now will be even five percent greater between what women make and what men make, and not as a direct result of what’s happened through the pandemic. I mean, this is really a she-cession. This recession that is happening because of the pandemic really affects women much more adversely than it does men for a whole host of reasons. And bringing awareness to that so that we don’t lose the precious gains we have made I think is really important.

But also just connecting with other women, networking, hearing other stories, being able to take what you can that applies to your story, it makes you feel less alone. It makes you feel empowered. It makes you feel like there’s a way forward and that you’re not in this abyss of having just left the workplace and you’re stuck, which many of us have felt and can feel regardless of what position we’re in.

To learn more about Unstoppable Together and join the #unstoppabletogether movement at @No7USA on Instagram and Facebook.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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