American women are at risk of losing years of hard-won progress in the workplace.
Typically, 15% of both men and women contemplate downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. As a result of Covid-19, the number of women is now almost 25% at any given time.
Even as the economy supposedly opens up, the prospects for working women continue to worsen. In September alone, the Labor Department reports that 865,000 women over 20 dropped out of the workforce—compared to 216,000 men.
This dire situation is the focus of the sixth annual Women in the Workplace report, produced jointly by McKinsey & Company and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation. “What we are seeing in this report should terrify all of us,” Sandberg told NPR. “We are pulling the alarm bell here.”
If left unchecked, the report warns, such trends could undo “years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.” As with any crisis, the moment contains opportunity as well—but only if companies “make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace.” The choices individual companies and leaders make will shape their organizations, and society, for decades to come.
An impossible juggling act for women
As I wrote in July, the pandemic has, from the onset, taken an enormous toll on working mothers. According to the Workplace report, mothers continue to bear a higher burden of housework: 20 hours more per week.
The start of the school year has, in many cases, only increased women’s workload. Roughly half of all school districts nationwide are on an all-remote model, including the majority of the largest districts—which means many women can add remote learning supervisor to their list of responsibilities.
It is no wonder that some women report feeling overwhelmed. “I feel like I am failing at everything,” confesses one woman quoted anonymously in the report. “I’m failing at work. I’m failing at my duties as a mom. I’m failing in every single way because I think what we’re being asked to do is nearly impossible.”
What is pushing women out of the workforce?
The report identifies a handful of pressures driving women to consider either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely:
· lack of flexibility at work
· feeling pressure to be available and “always-on”
· housework and caregiving burdens due to Covid-19
· worry that time spent caregiving will cause work performance to be judged negatively
· discomfort sharing these challenges with co-workers or managers
· feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their work
· feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work
Many of these stresses are felt to a heightened degree by Black and Latina women, whose families and communities are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Black women, for example, are more than twice as likely as women overall to cite the death of a loved one as a significant personal challenge during the pandemic. Our national reckoning with racial injustice and police violence, while a positive development in some ways, has taken a heavy emotional toll on women of color.
When women lose ground in the workplace, we all lose
Diverse teams and organizations have a competitive advantage over less diverse ones. Companies with a strong representation of women at the top are 50% more likely to outperform their peers.
The stakes go beyond profits and the bottom line. Women are also more likely to be champions of gender and racial diversity. To cite just one example: 38% of senior-level women mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, compared to 23% of senior-level men. Senior-level women also have a stronger track record of embracing employee-friendly policies and programs.
“If women leaders leave the workforce,” the report cautions, “women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions.” Moreover, organizations and society at large would lose valuable advocates for a culture of change and inclusion.
Some companies are stepping up but not enough
On the one hand, the report finds that many companies are taking significant steps to support their employees during the pandemic. A good number are expanding services related to mental health and wellbeing. They are providing tools and resources to facilitate remote work, as well as information about paid leave and other benefits.
Where companies are falling short is in addressing two fundamental causes of pandemic-related burnout. The first area of concern is expectations. Not even a third of companies surveyed are adjust performance review criteria to account for Covid-19-based challenges employees (women especially) are confronting.
As a result, “many employees—especially those who are parents and caregivers—are facing the choice between falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic, or pushing themselves to keep up an unsustainable pace.”
The second area of concern is financial anxiety. Many companies are making an effort to ease employees’ financial stress. More than half, for example, have increased paid leave. Yet such initiatives do not directly address what is for many their deepest financial worry: the possibility of being laid off or furloughed. (Unfortunately, as the report acknowledges, companies struggling financially themselves may not be in a position to provide employees with the reassurance they are seeking.)
How employers and business leaders can meet the moment
Even given the very real challenges companies and their leadership are dealing with at this moment, the report identifies a half-dozen areas companies should focus on:
1. Make work more sustainable by adjusting performance goals and expectations. Currently, only a small number of managers are doing this.
2. Reset norms around flexibility—working with employees to re-establish work-life boundaries and reduce the pressure to be “always on.”
3. Evaluate performance reviews and bring performance criteria in line with what employees can reasonably achieve.
4. Take steps to minimize gender bias. The pandemic is amplifying biases women have always faced: harsher judgments for mistakes, penalties for taking advantage of flex-work options, questioning the commitment of working mothers. Business leaders should address these issues head-on and track promotions and raises by gender to ensure that women are treated equitably.
5. Create employee-friendly policies, including expanding paid time off, parenting resources, and health checks.
6. Strengthen employee communication. Unfortunately, 1 in 5 employees has felt “consistently” uninformed or in the dark during the pandemic. Especially in a crisis, it is critical not to surprise or blindside employees. Leaders must be thoroughly transparent in updating employees about any business decision that might affect them.
What all these recommendations boil down to is quite simple: fostering a culture of empathy. While more critical now than ever, empathy has always been a precious and undervalued commodity. The stresses and strains female employees are feeling now were present before the pandemic. The biases and inequities experienced by women of color are longstanding.
It is true that recent years have seen progress for women in the workplace. It is also true that these gains have been insufficient. In the years since the first Women in the Workplace report was issued, women’s representation in corporate C-suites has gone from 17% to 21%. Now the coronavirus threatens to reverse even this modest progress.
Despite criticism to the contrary, Sheryl Sandberg asserts that she never meant to place the onus for increasing gender equity solely on individual women. Her vision of “leaning in” always included men, and companies, stepping up to do their share. With the fate of women in the workplace at such a critical juncture, the time has never been better for men and companies to step up.