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5 ways COVID has impacted women in the workplace

Young adult woman entering office wearing face mask.
Young adult woman entering office wearing face mask
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Since 2015, the Women in the Workplace report has evaluated the successes of women in corporate America alongside the challenges they face. Sponsored by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, the report gathers research from hundreds of companies and surveys thousands of employees for their insights and concerns around work-life integration.
Like any other report looking at 2020, this one could not escape the influence of COVID-19. The pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout upended our work and life routines, replacing them with a new normal that proved anything but. We’ve all felt the weight of it to a degree, though the burden has been far from proportionate.
And as this year’s Women in the Workplace report shows, an outsized portion of that burden has been borne by women workers.

Steady strides

Let’s start with the unicorns of 2020: good news. The report shows that despite pandemic woes, women continue to make impressive, steady strides into corporate America’s upper echelons. While the numbers aren’t as dramatic as many may hope, from 2015 to 2020 women have increased their representation in C-suite positions by 22 percent. They’ve also earned more VP and SVP roles (5 and 18 percent, respectively).
These numbers correspond to other indicators of progress. As we mentioned in last week’s blog, 41 women currently lead Fortune 500 companies, and while that remains a low ratio, it nonetheless represents hardwon gains. A mere 20 years ago, only two women could lay claim to that level of corporate access.
Unfortunately, women continue to struggle against barriers to entry at the manager level—the corporate “broken rung”—and women of color continue to be underrepresented. Even here though, the report cites real (if unacceptably slow) improvements.

COVID-19 could disrupt historic gains

According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working study*, recessions typically batter male-dominated professions; however, the pandemic shutdowns targeted industry sectors where women employment is much more concentrated, such as hospitality and health care. The difficulties have been further compounded by closures in school and daycare (see below) and the fact that women are less likely to be employed in telecommute-enabled professions.
That dire economic equation has put severe stress on women workers, notes the Women in the Workplace 2020 report. Employees surveyed by its researchers cited anxiety over furloughs as their number one challenge during COVID-19. Burnout and mental health followed courtesy of another pandemic–the “always-on” culture.
“I don’t have a sliver of time without a meeting from 8 AM until 6 PM every single day,” a woman VP told the study authors. “There’s no buffer to get a glass of water, go to the bathroom, check on my child. I had a couple of days in the past two weeks where I barely saw my son for 15 minutes. Since COVID-19, I’ve really thought about whether I can have a long-term career at this company.”

Unpaid labor continues to take its toll

Full-time working parents will always face additional work-life integration challenges. But the pandemic’s fusing of work, school, parenting, and all of life into the same tight, physical space has exacerbated those challenges, especially for working women.
According to the report, mothers are “more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving.” While 72 percent of fathers who participated in the survey believed they shared home responsibilities equally with their partner, only 44 percent of mothers said the same. And, of course, the long-term closures of schools and daycares have overloaded working mothers’ systems as all of their mental apps contend for time, attention, and processing power.
Credit where it’s due, the burden of unpaid labor on working mothers has been greatly reduced in recent decades.
This is partly the result of a more equitable division of that labor. Pew Research Center has been tracking the time Americans spend at work, doing house chores, and raising children since 1965. Their data show that fathers more than doubled their time performing housework between then and 2011 (4.4 to 9.8 hours), while mothers have reduced their time by almost half (31.9 to 17.8). 
Another windfall has been technological. We simply have more tools to streamline the many arduous chores of yesteryear. More and more households enjoy the presence of dishwashers and washing machines, which save parents hours of hand-scrubbing.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data show a similar trend. American women are working more paid hours and fewer unpaid hours; men fewer paid hours and more unpaid hours. While overall fathers still shoulder the bulk of paid work and mothers unpaid labor, the trend lines are growing closer together with each passing year.
But Pew and OECD’s numbers are pre-COVID. We must wait and see if the pandemic’s enduring effects adjust the trends in ways that are more equitable or less. Organizations that want to help can do so by providing and promoting flexible, healthy work schedules. Partners, well, there’s no better place to start than the dishes and vacuuming.

To scale back or opt out?

Of mothers surveyed, the report discovered that one in three was “considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce”. Childcare responsibility was cited as the main reason, and mothers were more likely than fathers to consider these options. For example, of participants stating they wanted to adjust their work situation, 16 percent of mothers were considering switching to a less demanding job compared to 11 percent of fathers. Similarly, 8 percent of mothers were considering a downshift from full- to part-time compared to 2 percent of fathers.
It’s worth noting that the study uses “leaving” and “stepping out” as umbrella terms that could mean either taking a leave of absence or exiting the workforce. Only 7 percent of women looking to change their work situation were considering a full exit (compare: 4 percent of men)
So while we aren’t losing an entire generation of women to the pandemic, this COVID-era trend remains worrisome, as it could stymie not only individual career paths but further reduce the already slow pipeline to upper management.

In danger of losing the “Onlys”

Senior-level women are feeling the pressure to be everything simultaneously in addition to facing the heightened stakes of leading their organizations through the current paradigm.
“Senior-level women are also nearly twice as likely as women overall to be ‘Onlys’—the only or one of the only women in the room at work,” the report states. “That comes with its own challenges: Women who are Onlys are more likely than women who work with other women to feel pressure to work more and to experience microaggressions, including needing to provide additional evidence of their competence.”
The report goes on to note that women who have reached this level are more likely than men to say they felt constantly exhausted, burned out, and pressured to work more. They were also more likely to signal a desire to downshift or leave the workforce, potentially depriving corporate America of their mentorship and leadership examples for future generations.

A rare opportunity

McKinsey & Company and LeanIn laud steps companies have taken to adjust norms and realign expectations in light of the new realities their colleagues face. But they also lament that more could still be done. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and the founder of Lean In, and Rachel Thomas, CEO of Lean In, wrote in their Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Corporate leaders may read this and think, “We know our employees are struggling right now. We’re doing what we can.” And many companies are indeed taking action: They’re being more upfront with employees about their financial situations, expanding mental health services, and providing emergency loans and grants. It’s all commendable, but these steps don’t address the crux of the issue, which is that women are burning out. That’s the problem companies need to solve.
To that end, the report offers a “framework for action” that suggests steps organizations can take to rebalance their operations and cultures to help colleagues face the pandemic’s procession of challenges. These include resetting flexibility norms, reassessing performance reviews, and an entire section dedicated to better supporting women of color.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and 2020’s generally disruptive behavior, has required businesses and organizations to make unprecedented changes. And more will come. If we are mindful of the changes we desire to see, however, that disruption may house an opportunity to evolve our cultures to not only meet the pandemic but posterity as well.
You can read the full Women in the Workplace 2020 report here
*As cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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