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COVID-19 threatens to reverse five years of progress for women in Corporate America

This discussion of the sixth annual Women in the Workplace report covers the effects of COVID-19 on US working women and the need for both companies and individuals to help deter women from exiting the workforce.

According to the latest report on Women in the Workplace 2020, US companies have made slow but steady progress toward true diversity and equality in the workplace. Companies need to intervene now to keep corporate America heading in the right direction.

To create the sixth annual Women in the Workplace report, information was collected from 317 US organizations and more than 40,000 employees. During a McKinsey Live webinar, senior partners Alexis Krivkovich and Lareina Yee discussed this year’s findings, including the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on women at work and the crossroads at which corporate America now finds itself.

The pandemic has had a particularly negative effect on working women. In fact, one of every four women in senior-level positions —more than two million of them—are now thinking about dialing back their job responsibilities (reducing work hours, moving to a part-time role, or switching to a less-demanding job), taking a leave of absence, or leaving the workforce altogether. If these women leave, far fewer women will be in leadership positions or on track to become leaders. Years of gradual progress toward gender diversity may be at risk.

Special challenges

Why are some women thinking about leaving their jobs? We looked at three groups of working women to better understand the challenges they face:

  • Working mothers. Absent the support that daycare and school provide them, mothers are juggling work with daycare, virtual schooling, and household chores, and they shoulder more of the added responsibilities than men. Forty percent of mothers (and 27 percent of fathers) spend at least three hours a day more than they did pre-COVID-19 meeting household responsibilities. Single mothers, of course, usually bear the full weight of the additional responsibilities.

    Mothers are twice as likely as fathers to worry that their caregiving responsibilities will result in negative judgments of their work performance. One-third of mothers (and one-quarter of four fathers) are thinking about leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers.

  • Senior-level women. Even before the pandemic, women in senior-level jobs tended to feel a need to work harder and longer than their male colleagues. Now they are burning out at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Forty-seven percent of senior-level women say they feel as if they must be “always on,” 54 percent consistently feel exhausted, and one in four (and one in six senior-level men) are considering leaving the workforce or dialing back their careers.

  • Black women. Six years of Women in the Workplace research shows that maintaining a career is more difficult for Black women than other women. They face systemic barriers to advancement, receive less support from managers, and experience more acute discrimination. They report a lack of strong allies at work and a greater quantity of microaggressions and are almost twice as likely as women in general to feel unable to bring their whole selves to work.

    The disproportionate impact of the virus on the Black community means they are three times more likely than women in general to lose a loved one to COVID-19 and have elevated health and safety concerns. Add the emotional toll of racial violence, and it’s no wonder three out of four Black women are considering pulling back from or pulling out of their jobs.

Intervention is needed now

To avoid losing more women currently in the workforce, companies need to quickly intervene in ways that build a more diverse and equitable environment.

Many companies have taken steps to support employees emotionally during the crisis—providing bereavement counseling or expanding mental health counseling, for example. In addition, some companies have supported their employees financially with, for example, more paid leave, stipends to pay for the costs of working from home, or emergency loans.

Fewer companies, however, have addressed the underlying causes of employee burnout and the core challenges women face. In addition to facing the challenges of Black women head on and fostering a culture that fully values and includes them, companies need to solve women’s current challenges by helping to reduce the additional pressure on them during the pandemic.

For example, although women appreciate the ability to work anywhere at any time, for some, the shift to the virtual office has blurred the lines between work and home, where family obligations are more likely to intrude on work, and more women than men feel the additional pressure. Companies need to find ways to reestablish boundaries and set new work norms—perhaps establish certain hours for meetings and improve communication about work hours and availability within teams—while encouraging employees to take full advantage of flexible work options.

Companies must step up their support of women and embrace diversity by engineering changes in structure, processes, and systems that provide pathways to success. They shouldn’t hesitate to experiment and find what works for their organization. If companies rise to the challenge and act boldly, they can protect hard-won gains in gender diversity and become better workplaces for everyone.

For more on this topic, please watch the webinar recording and read the full report, Women in the Workplace 2020.” To read more McKinsey insights on gender, diversity, and equity, visit diversity-and-inclusion.

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