Twenty-five percent of women could leave the workforce because of the pandemic

Women in the workplace
Photo via WOCinTech Chat/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The coronavirus pandemic has upended countless aspects of society as we know it. Many industries are converting to remote working, and video calls have become the new normal. The shift has been difficult for everyone. However, a new study finds that women and mothers, in particular, are having a difficult time adapting to a post-coronavirus workplace.

The comprehensive study, conducted jointly by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, was originally launched in 2015 to help companies advance diversity in the workplace. The 2020 report focuses on how the pandemic has affected working women and found that many companies are headed toward a workforce crisis.

Approximately one in four women at all leadership and management levels are now considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workplace altogether.

Women are experiencing feelings of exhaustion and pressure to work more and harder at a much higher rate than men. Even before the pandemic, many working mothers were engaged in what’s referred to as a “double shift.” This is because many household duties, including cooking and childcare, often fall to women.

With many schools and childcare centers closed due to the pandemic, working mothers are contending with simultaneously working and providing childcare full time. These burdens are exacerbated by helping children navigate remote learning while juggling meetings and performing their own work duties.

The study cites the following factors, which are common among female employees who are considering downsizing or leaving their roles:

  • Lack of flexibility at work
  • Feeling like they need to be available 24/7 or “always on”
  • Additional housework and caregiving burdens related to COVID-19
  • Stress that their work performance is negatively judged because of additional responsibilities
  • Discomfort sharing these challenges with teammates or managers
  • Feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work
  • An inability to bring their “whole” selves to work

Men are also affected by these factors, but the study finds that mothers are more likely than fathers to worry that their job performance is negatively judged due to caregiving responsibilities.

Likewise, women in senior leadership roles are more likely to feel as though they are “always on” compared to their male counterparts.

The authors of the study included a telling account from a white working mother of two school children, ages 7 and 11. She described feelings of “failing at everything” because she’s unable to give 100% of herself into anything she sets out to accomplish.

I feel like I am failing at everything. I’m failing at work. I’m failing at my duties as a mom. I’m failing in every single way, because I think what we’re being asked to do is nearly impossible. How can you continue to perform at the same level as in the office when you had no distractions, plus being asked to basically become a teacher for kids and everything else with online learning?

I’m doing it all, but at the same time I’m feeling like I’m not doing any of it very well. I also worry that my performance is being judged because I’m caring for my children. If I step away from my virtual desk and I miss a call, are they going to wonder where I am? I feel that I need to always be on and ready to respond instantly to whatever comes in. And if that’s not happening, then that’s going to reflect poorly on my performance.

Women of color in the workplace are struggling even more

Black women have always faced disproportionate challenges in the workplace. They are now more likely than any other employee to consider leaving the workforce due to health and safety concerns.

In addition to the challenges that everyone faces during the pandemic, Black women are also dealing with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. They are also twice as likely to cite the death of a loved one as one of their biggest dilemmas during the pandemic.

Ongoing racial violence and the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, have exacerbated this issue. The turmoil has taken a heavy emotional toll on Black employees. Only about one-third of Black women say their manager has fostered an inclusive culture on their team, and even fewer report that their manager has checked on their well-being in light of recent events. Black women are also more than 1.5 times as likely to say that they don’t have strong allies at work.

The findings appear bleak, but the study points out that the crisis also provides companies with an opportunity to do better.

By making “significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace,” there is still a chance of retaining women in the workforce. In turn, these decisions can create improved opportunities to ensure the overall long-term success of women in the workplace.

There are signs this may be starting to happen, but corporate America is at a crossroads. The choices being made by companies today will have consequences, for better or worse, for decades to come.

Source: Women in the Workplace 2020 Study

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