Stepping up, but risking burnout: Women leaders in the public and social sectors in 2021

The state of women in the public and social sectors

The public and social sectors are showing the rest of America’s workplaces the way forward to equal representation for women. Our research finds that the proportion of women at every level exceeds those in the workforce as a whole. Public and social sector (PSS) organizations today hire 53 percent women at the entry level, compared with 47 percent in the broader workforce.1Women in the Workplace 2021,” September 2021,

Historically, women’s progress toward senior managerial levels has been impeded by their relative absence in middle management. The most recent data suggests that PSS organizations have taken a crucial step toward parity at all levels by fixing the critical “first rung” between entry level and manager. PSS organizations now have reached gender parity in promotion, attrition, and hiring rates for managerial-level roles (see Sidebar).

Despite these gains, however, women in government and social sector organizations continue to be underrepresented compared with men at every management and leadership level, with their representation falling steadily from entry-level through management and leadership ranks (Exhibit 1).

Compared to the broader industry, public and social sector organizations have achieved higher levels of female representation.

Our broader research across industries highlights three systemic challenges women face in the workplace, which are likely also present in the public and social sectors.

1. Women at senior-leadership levels risk burning out

Women are working more. They are working more at home (the “second shift”), and they are doing more work outside their normal hours and formal roles (the new “third shift”) than men.2 It is unsurprising, then, that women in both the public, social, and private sectors feel more burned out than ever, and more so than their male counterparts.

The pandemic has confirmed and highlighted the disproportionate household burdens that women carry. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women dedicated more than twice as many hours as men to caring for household members.3

While burnout rates increased for both men and women over the past year, women’s burnout rates grew faster. As a result, the gap between male and female burnout rates nearly doubled (from 4 to 7 percent). More than one-third of men report burnout, but for women, the burnout percentage is now higher than 40 percent.4Women in the Workplace 2021,”

And burnout is hitting senior-level women the hardest, with fully 50 percent saying they are burned out at work. In 2020, a quarter of women in senior leadership roles said they wanted to leave the workforce or downshift their careers. Now, the proportion seeking to quit or offload major responsibilities has risen to one in three senior-level women.

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2. Women are working harder to promote DEI

Women are stepping up and working harder than men to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and employee well-being. Our research shows that women are significantly more likely than men to perform formal and informal work to support DEI initiatives. This gap is especially prevalent among senior-level women, who are twice as likely as their male counterparts to spend time on DEI work—such as recruiting employees from underrepresented groups and supporting employee resource groups—that falls outside their formal job responsibilities.

Women leaders with traditionally marginalized identities are even more likely to contribute to DEI efforts. Among women at the manager level and above, Black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are up to twice as likely as women overall to spend a substantial amount of time on DEI work outside their formal job responsibilities.

For example, when one of the military services updated their hair standards for women in January 2020 to allow for ponytails and braids, their all-volunteer women’s group immediately advocated to amend the policy to account for variations in hair texture and density. The volunteers collected data—including taking photos and holding focus groups on the front lines—and drafted new, more inclusive language. In a mere four months, the standard was amended to allow for hair to extend six inches beyond the head in any direction and therefore be more inclusive of women of various ethnic backgrounds.

At the same time, women are also shouldering the responsibility of supporting the emotional health and well-being of their teams, for instance, by helping employees manage their workloads or checking in regularly on their overall well-being. Women do 60 percent more work than their male counterparts to support the emotional health of their colleagues.

For example, one woman leader at a federal agency devotes time each day to call her direct reports for spontaneous and unstructured chats to create low-stress moments of mutual support. Her actions have changed the culture of her agency, with this behavior cascading across the organization down to frontline supervisors and making widespread connections.

Organizations benefit substantially from this sort of work and the women stepping up should be celebrated. When managers support employee well-being, those employees report being 27 percent happier, 28 percent less burned out, and 32 percent less likely to consider leaving their organization than employees who do not receive such support.5Women in the Workplace 2021,”

Nevertheless, women’s contributions to DEI and employee well-being are undervalued. While 70 percent of organizations say DEI efforts are critical, only 24 percent of organizations substantially recognize contributions to this initiative. Similarly, 87 percent of organizations say well-being is important, but only 25 percent give it substantial recognition.

3. Women continue to have a more negative experience at work

Organizations have become better at reducing bias in performance reviews and especially in hiring, but they have not yet succeeded in eliminating bias altogether.

All women are more likely than men to face microaggressions—such as being interrupted and having their judgment questioned—that undermine them professionally. But women of color experience these microaggressions at a higher rate. And they are more likely than White women to face disrespectful and “othering” microaggressions that reinforce harmful stereotypes or cast them as outsiders.

Women who regularly experience microaggressions are twice as likely as those who don’t to be burned out, more than twice as likely to report feeling negative about their job, and almost three times as likely to say that they have struggled to concentrate at work during the past few months because of stress.

One federal agency leader noted that many colleagues, when presented with examples of bias, are surprised to hear that sexual, gender, and racial discrimination still exists in government services. To continue promoting cultural change to reduce these incidents, she highlights the importance of individual vigilance and action, and anti-bias training.

Women in the Workplace 2021

Women in the Workplace 2021

How PSS organizations can address women’s concerns

1. Formally recognize and reward contributions to DEI and employee well-being

Organizations can do more to recognize and reward the positive contributions women make to DEI initiatives, employee well-being, and sponsorship of the next generation. For example, leaders in these organizations could expand the scope of performance evaluations and promotion criteria to include work outside of formal roles, especially leadership. PSS organizations could also celebrate these women, signaling to the workforce the value they place on their work.

An opportunity may also exist to build diversity goals into performance reviews. More than two-thirds of organizations say senior leaders are held responsible for progress on diversity goals—but less than half as many hold managers responsible as well.6Women in the Workplace 2021,”

Valuing this kind of work by women leaders could elevate the existing contributions of female leaders, support retention efforts, and encourage male leaders to join women and take a bigger role in these important, high-impact efforts.

2. Build allyship and educate about anti-racism

PSS organizations can progress toward gender equity in leadership by implementing allyship programs. While mentors provide advice and sponsors offer opportunities, allies proactively support their colleagues and stand up for them in the face of discrimination. Allyship has a particularly salient impact on Black women.7Women in the Workplace 2021,” When they feel they have real allies, they are twice as likely to bring their whole selves to work and believe they have equal opportunities to advance. But identifying as an ally doesn’t always translate to action; only 39 percent of employees who identified as allies reported publicly acknowledging or giving credit to women of color for their ideas and work.8Women in the Workplace 2021,”

PSS organizations can also apply best practices to remove bias from core processes including hiring and performance reviews. There is compelling evidence that bias training for performance review evaluators is particularly effective. At organizations reducing gender disparities in representation at every level, half the employees participated in unconscious bias training in the past year. By comparison, only one-quarter of employees received such training at organizations that have not made progress toward closing those gender gaps.9Women in the Workplace 2021,”

3. Normalize employee support and flexibility

Leaders can take time to talk with employees about the challenges they experience and empower managers to help employees reduce their burdens. Such conversations may reveal simple ways to create a more inclusive work environment without major policy changes.

For instance, leadership can play a vital role in encouraging a company culture that allows employees to form healthy boundaries around work time availability, and women leaders can be excellent role models. A female leader at one federal agency reduced burnout at her organization by sharing her calendar so that even junior team members could see she takes breaks throughout the day. By normalizing this practice, all employees feel more empowered to make time for their own well-being.

More formally, PSS organizations may reduce burnout by instituting norms and practices to combat burnout. During the pandemic, one social sector organization created “unplugged days” to give staff time without email or meetings to do deeper work with time to think critically and strategically. They also are testing an “automatic check”—for any proposed new initiative, they ask: What can we delay, deprioritize, or drop to make space for this new thing? This model prevents new initiatives and plans from becoming just one more thing on people’s already full plates.

Organizations can also institute formal policies and benefits to support employees who are parents and caregivers. They can allow employees to flex their hours and have 30-minute buffers free of meetings at the beginning of the workday. Paid family leave, emergency backup childcare services, on-site childcare, and mental health services can also help.

For example, the introduction in 2020 of 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal government employees enabled many to support their families from early in the pandemic. Because the benefit is available to men and women, it helps normalize stepping away from the office to care for a new family member.

For more ideas on how to increase the representation of women and minority leaders, see our February 2021 article, Tips for new government leaders: Unlocking diversity and inclusion.10Tips for new government leaders: Unlocking diversity and inclusion,” February 2021,

PSS organizations are leading the way in equalizing opportunities for women. Organizations can next focus on reducing bias and microaggressions, recognizing and rewarding the “third shift” contributions of women leaders, and supporting all employees through flexible arrangements and formal support.

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