Last month, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org released the annual Women in the Workplace report, the largest study of its kind. After six years of slow but measurable progress in the representation of women in corporate America, one in four women are now considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers due to COVID-19. In a single year, this would wipe out all of the hard-earned gains we’ve seen for women in management—and unwind years of progress toward gender diversity.

The report is based on data and insights from 317 companies employing more than 12 million people, along with survey responses from more than 40,000 individual employees. It urges companies to act immediately to avert this potential crisis and includes recommendations for addressing the feelings of burnout and being “always on” for work that many employees are grappling with right now.

“If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” said Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and co-founder of LeanIn.Org. “Leaders must act fast or risk losing millions of women from the workforce and setting gender diversity back years.”    

Kevin Sneader, global managing partner at McKinsey & Company, agrees. “This crisis for women is not going away, but the solutions are within reach,” said Sneader. “Companies need to adapt their strategies to more fully support women’s lives amidst a new world of work.”

COVID-19 has been hugely disruptive for all employees. The new report also highlights the effects of the pandemic on women, including the distinct challenges for mothers, women in senior leadership, and Black women.

Working mothers are deeply concerned about how COVID-19 will impact their careers. They are more than three times as likely as fathers to be managing most of their family’s housework and caregiving during the pandemic—and twice as likely to worry that their performance will be judged negatively due to their caregiving responsibilities. They are also far more likely to feel uncomfortable sharing work-life challenges with colleagues — or that they’ve got children at home.

Senior-level women are juggling huge demands both at work and at home. Senior-level women are more likely than women at other levels to be mothers. Senior-level women are also more likely to be in dual career couples than senior-level men, which means they are trying to balance work and home without the extra support that a partner who doesn’t work often provides. And they are almost twice as likely as women at other levels to often be the only or one of the only women in the room, which often comes with heightened scrutiny, such as needing to provide additional evidence of their competence. Likely because of these factors, senior-level women are more likely than senior-level men to feel “always on” and under pressure to work more. They are also 1.5 times as likely to think about leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers—and almost 3 in 4 cite burnout as a primary reason.

Companies can’t afford to lose women leaders. Compared to men at the same level, senior-level women are more likely to mentor or sponsor women of color and are more likely to be allies to women of color—for example, 60 percent of senior-level women say they publicly acknowledge the work of women of color, compared to only 44 percent of senior-level men. Women in leadership are also more likely to enlist their peers to support racial equality and take a public stand in support of it.

Black women were already having a distinct—and by and large worse—experience at work. Compared to women of other races and ethnicities, Black women face more systemic barriers, receive less support from managers, and experience more acute discrimination. Now, the difficult events of 2020 are disproportionately impacting Black women. They are more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. And incidents of racial violence across the U.S. have exacted a heavy emotional toll on all Black employees. On top of this, for many Black women, work isn’t a supportive place. Compared to other employees, Black women feel more excluded at work and are less likely to say they can bring their whole selves to work.

Nothing about 2020 is business as usual. Companies need to take bold action to make work more sustainable and inclusive for women—and especially women of color. The Women in the Workplace report provides specific, concrete steps companies can take, including embracing flexible working norms, guarding against bias in performance reviews, communicating openly and empathetically with employees, and providing training to help managers and colleagues show up as allies. The report also points to long-term opportunities. If companies set better norms for remote work—and build on the programs they are putting in place to help employees weather this crisis—they can lay the building blocks for a better workplace.

The complete Women in the Workplace report is available at womenintheworkplace.com.

THE IMPACT OF COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis could erase all the gains women have made in management and senior leadership since the beginning of this study. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. This is a sharp departure from past years—in the six years of this research, women have been leaving their jobs at similar rates as men.

For mothers, COVID-19 has made balancing work and home even more challenging. Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of their family’s housework and childcare during COVID-19. On top of this, mothers are more than twice as likely as fathers to worry that their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities.

Black and Latina mothers are juggling even more. They are more likely than white working mothers to have a partner that works full-time outside the home and to handle all of their family’s housework and caregiving.

Senior-level women are under enormous pressure. Seniorlevel women are more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out, under pressure to work more, and “always on.” Several factors are contributing to this dynamic: Seniorlevel women are more likely than women at other levels to be mothers, more likely than senior-level men to have partners who work full-time, and nearly twice as likely as women overall to be “Onlys”—the only or one of the only women in the room at work.

Senior-level women have a meaningful impact on company culture. Compared to senior-level men, they are much more active allies to women of color. They are more likely than senior-level men to mentor or sponsor women of color, suggesting that the loss of senior level women could impact the whole pipeline for years to come.

Black women are having a worse experience and receiving less support. In addition to the heightened pressures Black women who are mothers and senior leaders are experiencing, they are dealing with distinct issues because of their race. And for many, work isn’t a supportive place: Fewer than one in three Black women report their manager has checked in on them in light of recent racial violence, and a similar number say their manager has fostered an inclusive culture on their team. Plus, Black women are far less likely than white colleagues to say they have strong allies at work. All of this is having an impact on Black women. Compared to other employees, Black women feel more excluded at work and are less likely to say they can bring their whole selves to work.

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