Hiring and Retention

The Crisis Facing Women In The Workplace

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, domestic and family obligations have piled up on women in the workplace—especially Black women and other minorities. Suddenly responsible for childcare and overseeing remote school, among other things, many have been forced to scale back their hours or give up their careers. As Rachel Thomas, the CEO of Lean In®, told TIME™ magazine, “If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it.” 

Let’s take a look at the stats and studies behind this troubling trend. 

In September, Lean In and McKinsey & Company® published a 63-page report painting a grim picture of workplace gender equality—so much so, they call it “an emergency for corporate America.” COVID-19 all but erased the line between work and home, leading many women to wonder how they’ll do their jobs, take care of their families, manage burnout, and more. \\ 

Arguably the most eye-popping finding of the McKinsey® study was that 1 in 4 women in corporate America are considering “downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.” That means going part time or leaving for a less demanding job or one that offers more work-life balance. Companies don’t just risk losing women in key leadership positions; they will lose out on future leaders as well. But the study, which was based on interviews with more than 40,000 people between June and August 2020, offered other key findings.

Up until the pandemic, the numbers were looking up—kind of. From January 2015 to January 2020, women in senior-vice-president positions increased from 23% to 28%. For senior executive roles, the increase was from 17% to 21%. There was still work to do, but the stats were getting better. Then came Covid-19.

Women miss out on critical promotions.Last year, for every 100 men who reached the role of manager, only 85 women were promoted. The numbers were worse for Black women (58) and Latina women (71). Big picture, women accounted for 38% of manager-level positions by January 2020, while men represented 62%. This trend has been going on for six years. 

COVID-19 has caused senior-level women to consider downshifting or leaving their careers at a higher rate than their male counterparts. And nearly 75% of them say it’s due to burnout. 

Black women have an even heavier burden. They often receive less support from coworkers and managers and tend to face more discrimination than women of other races and ethnicities. They also receive fewer promotions and are “significantly underrepresented in senior leadership.” At a time when support from colleagues can truly make a difference, Black women are less likely to share their opinions on racial inequity, how news affects them, and how they’re managing emotionally.  

In dual-career couples, mothers of children under 10 are twice as likely as fathers of children under 10 to spend five more hours a day on household chores during the pandemic. Of course, single mothers shoulder these responsibilities without the support of a partner, making the challenges even more intense. 

“When women are well represented at the top,” a company’s profits and share performance can be nearly 50% higher, according to the report. And women in senior-level positions are more likely than men to mentor other women and espouse programs and policies focusing on gender and racial diversity. 

Losing ground 

In September 2020, over 1.1 million workers ages 20 and older left the workforce, and 80% of them were women, according to the National Women’s Law Center. That’s a whopping 865,000 women, including 324,000 Latina women and 58,000 Black women.  

Whether due to layoffs or choosing to step back, the longer a woman is out of the workforce, the longer she’s likely to remain there, Kweilin Ellingrud, a senior partner at McKinsey, explained to The New York Times®. “That is a very worrisome story,” Ellingrud said. “We’ve now lost a lot of ground that we had gained very, very slowly over the last decade.” 

The motherhood gap 

Back in March 2020, experts started speaking out about how COVID-19 could set back decades of progress women have made in the workplace. “We’re looking at the prospect of a two-tier workplace where men go back and women stay home. It’s taken us 20 years to get this far on female participation in the workforce, but it could take only months to unravel,” Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a U.K.-based charity focusing on gender equality, told The Guardian®. 

That unraveling stems from the fact that working women are often put in an impossible situation: They are frequently responsible for childcare and overseeing remote school and housework—but judged at the office for requesting flexible or reduced hours. They also don’t often have the support they need from their male partners (if they have male partners). 

As the New York Times reported in September, “most professional gender gaps are in fact motherhood gaps: women without children are much closer to parity with men when it comes to salaries and promotions, but mothers pay a large career penalty.”

Yet there are reasons to be hopeful. As the McKinsey report points out, “The choices companies make today will have consequences on gender equality for decades to come.”  

Check out our next blog post to learn about what companies can do to better support women in the workplace.