women

How the Coronavirus Crisis Threatens to Set Back Women’s Careers

Kate Deisseroth spent two decades building a career as an orthopedic surgeon that now, in the Covid era, looks precarious.

As the single mother of twin 10-year-olds in Lebanon, Pa., the Air Force veteran made pre-pandemic life run like clockwork with an intricate schedule of early school drop-off, after-school programs and babysitters who watched her sons when she was called to the hospital for emergencies.

That support system all fell away when the pandemic struck and her boys’ school went online.

Though her boss and colleagues rallied around her, helping her lobby for permission to consult with patients from home and taking on some of her work, she is looking into nonclinical jobs with predictable hours in case her sons’ school returns to online learning this fall.

Dr. Deisseroth has no illusions about the consequences of such a drastic move: “As a surgeon, you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.”

Kate Deisseroth, an orthopedic surgeon, with her sons, Andrew (blue shirt) and Henry Deisseroth, both 10 years old, at home in Lebanon, Pa. ‘As a surgeon,’ Dr. Deisseroth says, ‘you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.’

Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

Kate Deisseroth, an orthopedic surgeon, with her sons, Andrew (blue shirt) and Henry Deisseroth, both 10 years old, at home in Lebanon, Pa. ‘As a surgeon,’ Dr. Deisseroth says, ‘you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.’

Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

Kate Deisseroth, an orthopedic surgeon, with her sons, Andrew (blue shirt) and Henry Deisseroth, both 10 years old, at home in Lebanon, Pa. ‘As a surgeon,’ Dr. Deisseroth says, ‘you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.’

Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

Kate Deisseroth, an orthopedic surgeon, with her sons, Andrew (blue shirt) and Henry Deisseroth, both 10 years old, at home in Lebanon, Pa. ‘As a surgeon,’ Dr. Deisseroth says, ‘you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.’

Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

Kate Deisseroth, an orthopedic surgeon, with her sons, Andrew (blue shirt) and Henry Deisseroth, both 10 years old, at home in Lebanon, Pa. ‘As a surgeon,’ Dr. Deisseroth says, ‘you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.’

Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

Kate Deisseroth, an orthopedic surgeon, with her sons, Andrew (blue shirt) and Henry Deisseroth, both 10 years old, at home in Lebanon, Pa. ‘As a surgeon,’ Dr. Deisseroth says, ‘you can’t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.’

Seven months into a pandemic that has turned work and home life upside down, working women are confronting painful choices that threaten to unravel recent advances in gender equity—in pay, the professional ranks and in attaining leadership positions.

Women have already lost a disproportionate number of jobs. That is partly because of a segregated workforce in many fields in which women make up more of the lower-income service and retail jobs that vanished as Covid-19 gripped the economy. While women are 47% of the U.S. labor force, they accounted for 54% of initial coronavirus-related job losses and still make up 49% of them, according to McKinsey & Co.

Women have carved out a growing share of the labor force over the years. In recent decades, that share has come close to 50%.

Women and men as a share of the U.S. labor force, age 16 and over

More women—particularly mothers—say they may have to step back or away from jobs they still have, a new major study shows. Though the pandemic has forced fathers and mothers to juggle careers with child care and remote schooling, women often shoulder the brunt of those responsibilities.

Percentage of employees who say they have considered leaving the workforce since the start of the Covid-19 crisis

Percentage of employees who say they have considered downshifting their careers since the start of the Covid-19 crisis

That outsize burden has long-term consequences: About one in five working mothers surveyed this summer for the sixth annual Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org say they are considering dropping out of the workforce, at least temporarily—compared with 11% of fathers. An additional 15% of mothers report they may dial back their careers, either by cutting their hours or switching to a less-demanding role. Among women with young children, the struggle is especially acute: Nearly a quarter say they may take a leave of absence or quit altogether.

Nor is the parental load the only factor. Among childless men and women, 10% also say they are considering leaving the workforce, and across the board, employees are more likely to cite burnout and anxiety over job security as their biggest work challenge than child care. Black women are even more likely than women overall to consider downshifting or taking a leave from work and cite health concerns as a reason, the report says.

The findings come from one of the most comprehensive pandemic-era surveys of working women and men, in which researchers at McKinsey and Lean In polled more than 40,000 North American employees. If employers don’t take more action to shore up mothers in their jobs, McKinsey and Lean In warn, they could see the percentage gains women have made over the past several years up and down the management ladder dissipate.

‘Dig deep’

The message to companies: “You may be struggling now, but if you don’t dig deep, if you don’t make major investments in supporting working parents in different ways, you will have lost years of hard-earned progress,” says

Rachel Thomas

, CEO of Lean In, the nonprofit founded by

Facebook Inc.’s

Sheryl Sandberg

to support women in their career ambitions.

Women’s gains along the career ladder at U.S. companies have been generally modest since 2015, but bigger at more senior levels.

Women’s representation at each level
in the pipeline

The good news, she and other executives say, is that white-collar women especially may benefit long term from some of the changes wrought by Covid-19, such as more flexible schedules and the normalization of working from home for those who can. Shorter term, however, many working mothers have reached a breaking point as work and life bleed together into a boundaryless home life—a red flag for the economy and the business world.

Across the corporate landscape, “I’m very concerned that there’s a level of talent we’re going to start losing that we’ve worked very hard to develop,” says

Lisa Safarian

, head of

Bayer AG’s

North American crop-science business, who adds that working mothers of young children are a critical part of the next generation of potential business leaders. At the German company’s U.S. operations, the number of women in senior management has risen more than 40% over the past decade.

In addition to hurting women’s careers and livelihoods, she says, “this would set our business back.”

A growing body of research links greater gender diversity on teams and in corporate management to more innovation and better financial performance. That business case is a big reason a majority of companies say working toward equality for women and minorities in the workplace remains a priority, and many are providing more support to employees in balancing work and life since the pandemic began. Nearly half have added or expanded parenting and home-schooling benefits and mental-health counseling, while 28% have increased the emergency loans or grants they offer to workers, according to the McKinsey/Lean In data.

Yet employers, by and large, haven’t dialed back their productivity expectations of employees, the data suggest. Half of the 317 major companies surveyed by McKinsey and Lean In haven’t changed anything about their performance reviews, and only 8% have instructed managers to reduce their teams’ workloads. While more than two-thirds of companies say they have asked managers to check in weekly on workers’ mental health and to assess whether their work is manageable, less than 40% of employees say that is happening.

At Bayer, women have made major advances in the management ranks in recent years. In the U.S., they make up 40% of upper management positions, compared with 28% in 2010. Since the start of the pandemic, Ms. Safarian says, she and other senior leaders have kept a close eye on whether women continue to consistently be in the running for promotions. In addition to expanding employee benefits for child care and home-schooling help, the company has encouraged bosses to help employees juggle work and home life in different ways, such as not scheduling super-early meetings and reminding people to take breaks.

“I still see women getting that next big job, and some have young children. So the good news is they are figuring it out, hopefully with our help,” says Ms. Safarian, who says she has been able to manage her job (now from a spare bedroom in her basement) with being a mother of three because her husband is a stay-at-home father. “But my worry is the cumulative effect of too much every day. At what point does someone say this is too much?”

Share of working parents who report being responsible for most or all housework and/or child care

Mothers during Covid-19

51%

Fathers during Covid-19

16%

What’s clear is that the “double shift” many women already work in taking care of home and family alongside their paying jobs has ballooned as schools and day-care options in many parts of the country remain at least partially shut—though fathers, too, have been strapped with more home duties.

Among working mothers in dual-career couples, 40% say they spend an additional three or more hours a day on child care and home responsibilities than pre-Covid, while 27% of fathers said the same, according to McKinsey and Lean In. More than half of mothers say they are responsible for either all or most of the work at home.

In January,

Keesa McKoy

, 31, started a new job at Boston University as a communications director. When she brought her 4-year-old daughter, Azara, to day care one day in March, she discovered it had shut down overnight.

“I figured it out,” she says. “But it was a setup for the rest of the time—pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.”

Ms. McKoy, who is separated, had her daughter most weekdays, but says that custody schedule soon became unsustainable. She and her ex agreed their daughter would spend Tuesday to Thursday with him, and Friday and Monday with Ms. McKoy. They switch off weekends. She negotiated with her boss to minimize meetings on the days she has her daughter, but that has been tough as her responsibilities have multiplied. Right now, Ms. McKoy is leading two large projects and advising on two others.

Keesa McKoy and her daughter, Azara, 4, outside their home in Brockton, Mass. Ms. McKoy says the pandemic has meant ‘pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.’

Photographs by Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Keesa McKoy and her daughter, Azara, 4, outside their home in Brockton, Mass. Ms. McKoy says the pandemic has meant ‘pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.’

Photographs by Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Keesa McKoy and her daughter, Azara, 4, outside their home in Brockton, Mass. Ms. McKoy says the pandemic has meant ‘pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.’

Photographs by Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Keesa McKoy and her daughter, Azara, 4, outside their home in Brockton, Mass. Ms. McKoy says the pandemic has meant ‘pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.’

Photographs by Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Keesa McKoy and her daughter, Azara, 4, outside their home in Brockton, Mass. Ms. McKoy says the pandemic has meant ‘pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.’

Photographs by Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Keesa McKoy and her daughter, Azara, 4, outside their home in Brockton, Mass. Ms. McKoy says the pandemic has meant ‘pivoting and being flexible as much as you can.’

Photographs by Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Azara is currently in remote prekindergarten, and when she starts a hybrid schedule in mid-October, Ms. McKoy says she may tap some of the university’s 10 days of leave offered to manage personal needs.

“No scenario feels optimal even if I get the time off because I have so much work,” she says. Still, she counts herself among the fortunate. “As a Black woman, there’s a lot going on in the context of privilege, but I’m still able to work. I have a home where I can be in a different space than my daughter. I really struggle with the gratefulness of being in a better position than a lot of people but acknowledging it’s still very difficult.”

Many employers remain optimistic that they can continue to improve gender and racial diversity within their ranks, and say the pandemic may even prove a new path to achieving those targets: About 70% of companies surveyed by McKinsey and Lean In said the discovery that so many people could work productively while out of the office will allow them to recruit new, remote employees from locations previously off the table.

“We had an HQ-centric mentality for many of the jobs before. This has really forced us to think differently,” says Susan St. Ledger, president of world-wide field operations for Splunk, a data-platform provider based in San Francisco. To hire tech and other talent with more diverse backgrounds, the company is looking at setting up hubs in parts of the country with bigger populations of underrepresented people, letting recruits work at home but gather in an office as needed.

For some women, especially those with older or no children, the pandemic has created opportunities.

Karen Cahn

, founder an CEO of IFundWomen, a marketplace for women-owned businesses and investors who want to support them, says many of the female entrepreneurs in her network have full-time corporate jobs, and she has seen a marked split in the experiences of those who have children—about 60%—and those who don’t.

“The 40% who don’t are finding it exponentially easier to get their businesses funded and off the ground. If they are working from home, they have a lot more time and flexibility,” says Ms. Cahn, who has been juggling a Covid-driven surge in business with raising two teens with her ex-husband. “Remote work is great. It’s the home-schooling and child care that ruins any chances of having a sane, normal workday.”

After a decade working in hospitals and jails in her home state of Mississippi, Sheoashie Palmer, 44, signed on to be a traveling nurse last fall through an agency called Krucial Staffing. Ms. Palmer, whose two daughters are now in their 20s, moved to New York City when it emerged as a virus hot spot to work in Covid-19 intensive-care units for two months. She’s now caring for Covid-19 patients in Laredo, Texas.

Sheoashie Palmer, a traveling nurse from Mississippi, is now working in Laredo, Texas. She makes her way to her hotel room there.

Photographs by Veronica G. Cardenas for The Wall Street Journal

Sheoashie Palmer, a traveling nurse from Mississippi, is now working in Laredo, Texas. She makes her way to her hotel room there.

Photographs by Veronica G. Cardenas for The Wall Street Journal

Photographs by Veronica G. Cardenas for The Wall Street Journal

Sheoashie Palmer, a traveling nurse from Mississippi, is now working in Laredo, Texas. She makes her way to her hotel room there.

Photographs by Veronica G. Cardenas for The Wall Street Journal

Sheoashie Palmer, a traveling nurse from Mississippi, is now working in Laredo, Texas. She makes her way to her hotel room there.

Photographs by Veronica G. Cardenas for The Wall Street Journal

Sheoashie Palmer, a traveling nurse from Mississippi, is now working in Laredo, Texas. She makes her way to her hotel room there.

Sheoashie Palmer, a traveling nurse from Mississippi, is now working in Laredo, Texas. She makes her way to her hotel room there.

Photographs by Veronica G. Cardenas for The Wall Street Journal

The 60-hour weeks tending to patients gripped by the illness took an emotional toll, but the premium pay helped her pay off debts and plan vacations she might not otherwise have taken.

The experience also sparked a desire to skill up in intensive-care nursing. “They’re like superheroes,” she says of the ICU nurses she worked with in New York City. “They come in and they just know exactly what to do. I want to know more.”

The long-term effects of the pandemic may ultimately help advance some women’s careers in other ways. Though women have taken on a greater share of the extra domestic labor, men are logging more hours on those tasks now, too. Their greater involvement at home may persist after the pandemic is contained, says Titan Alon, an economist at the University of California, San Diego and co-author of a paper examining the impact of Covid-19 on gender roles. Many employers have signaled they plan to retain some of the flexibility and work-from-home policies necessitated this year once the pandemic is over, which could help women better balance work and home life.

Without the option

But the benefits of enhanced flexibility don’t apply to millions of women whose jobs require them to be on site, including retail, health-care and service workers. Nearly four in 10 female workers in the U.S., or 38%, say it isn’t possible for them to do their job by working from home, according to a Wall Street Journal/SurveyMonkey poll conducted earlier this year, compared with 37% of men.

Three years ago, in search of better work-life balance,

Breanna Del Toro

left a career as a funeral director and embalmer and is now a courtesy-center manager at a Schnucks grocery store in Peoria, Ill. She works 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. five days a week, preparing the store to open, checking inventory and handling bank deposits.

As an essential worker, the 33-year-old logged nearly 60 hours a week during the first months of the pandemic. The overtime pay, on top of her $17.80-per-hour wage, mitigated the loss of income from her husband, who was furloughed from his job managing a warehouse. During that time, he was able to stay home with the couple’s three children, ages 9 to 12.

Because Ms. Del Toro’s job exposed her to the public, and the virus, she thought about taking an unpaid leave of absence. But “I just financially couldn’t do it,” she says.

The pandemic has been uniquely challenging for women in the middle of launching a new venture. When

Debbie Malewicki

started an education business in 2018 near New Haven, Conn., she expected to serve mostly college students who needed test proctors and tutors. In early 2020, colleges went remote, and her customer base, in an area rich with universities, dispersed.

“We were just starting to have our name recognized and getting an influx of students, and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors,” she says.

She and her business partner are now trying to reinvent Integrity 1st Learning Support Solutions to serve grades K to 12. She has spoken with around 75 parents, most of them representing “pods” of multiple families, but many are waiting to see how distance learning goes before hiring a professional teacher. Meanwhile, Ms. Malewicki has spent down her savings and liquidated most of her retirement fund to stay afloat.

At home, she is dealing with many of the same challenges as the families she hopes to serve, caring for her 9-year-old son, Tristan, and helping her mother and elderly stepfather, who has Parkinson’s disease. Because Tristan has some learning difficulties, he was invited to attend school four days a week in person, which has eased some of the strain on Ms. Malewicki.

Debbie Malewicki’s education startup was beginning to see an ‘influx of students,’ she says, ‘and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors.’ Ms. Malewicki and her son, Tristan Malewicki, 9, in the backyard of her home in Monroe, Conn.

Photographs by Desiree Rios for The Wall Street Journal

Debbie Malewicki’s education startup was beginning to see an ‘influx of students,’ she says, ‘and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors.’ Ms. Malewicki and her son, Tristan Malewicki, 9, in the backyard of her home in Monroe, Conn.

Photographs by Desiree Rios for The Wall Street Journal

Debbie Malewicki’s education startup was beginning to see an ‘influx of students,’ she says, ‘and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors.’ Ms. Malewicki and her son, Tristan Malewicki, 9, in the backyard of her home in Monroe, Conn.

Photographs by Desiree Rios for The Wall Street Journal

Debbie Malewicki’s education startup was beginning to see an ‘influx of students,’ she says, ‘and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors.’ Ms. Malewicki and her son, Tristan Malewicki, 9, in the backyard of her home in Monroe, Conn.

Photographs by Desiree Rios for The Wall Street Journal

Debbie Malewicki’s education startup was beginning to see an ‘influx of students,’ she says, ‘and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors.’ Ms. Malewicki and her son, Tristan Malewicki, 9, in the backyard of her home in Monroe, Conn.

Photographs by Desiree Rios for The Wall Street Journal

Photographs by Desiree Rios

for The Wall Street Journal

Debbie Malewicki’s education startup was beginning to see an ‘influx of students,’ she says, ‘and all of a sudden we were shutting our doors.’ Ms. Malewicki and her son, Tristan Malewicki, 9, in the backyard of her home in Monroe, Conn.

She hopes to offer that kind of relief to other families with her new business model.

“I’d like to give that opportunity to other parents,” she says. “I’m trying to make some lemonade out of lemons here.”

Ms. Weber, a Wall Street Journal reporter in New York, can be reached at [email protected] Ms. Fuhrmans, deputy chief of The Wall Street Journal’s management bureau, can be reached at [email protected]

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