Working women and mothers have faced compounded challenges amid the pandemic. If they weren’t facing layoffs outright, they were balancing childcare with professional responsibilities, or facing a forced choice to cut hours or even leave the workforce entirely.
All of these factors, and more, play into how women across the country are feeling about work, per McKinsey & Company’s 2020 “Women in the Workplace” study.
The research was based on surveying 317 companies that employ more than 12 million people. In the five years the report has tracked trends before the COVID-19 pandemic, women were making progress at work: More were leading companies and advancing to managerial roles than in years before.
“There are bright spots, but COVID has essentially erased some of this progress,” Ellen Feehan, partner at McKinsey & Company’s Philly office, told attendees of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s “Women in Crisis: Enabling Women Leaders, Wages & Economic Activity” event Thursday morning.
Before the pandemic, research found that women and men left their companies at comparable rates, but in 2020, as many as 2 million women have or are considering leaving the workforce. This is due to a collection of issues including anxiety over layoffs, burnout, mental health decline, increased childcare and household responsibilities, and concern for the physical and mental health of loved ones.
And there are three cohorts of women who are feeling these effects the most, Feehan said: mothers of young children, senior women and Black women.
Dalila Wilson-Scott, Comcast’s newly appointed chief diversity officer, said women’s work-from-home dynamic is often different from that of their male partners because women are often poised as the “leaders” of the household — keeping track of everyone’s schedules, planning meals and handling the emotional work of the family, too.
“So we’re often carving out time to get work done along with all the mental and physical things we keep track of and accomplish,” she said. “For women, we need more support, communication, casual conversation touch points. Working from home has made the ability to have a support network harder. It’s not impossible, it’s just harder in these times.”
And Black women, who are statistically more likely to be directly affected by COVID, are feeling those effects in burnout and lack of support at work. They were already less likely to be promoted or have a mentor at work, and the pandemic has forced larger disconnect between Black women and their colleagues when it comes to sharing about their family life or struggling to adjust.
“Black women have quite a level of facility of code switching, or not bringing our authentic self to work in order to excel in that environment,” Wilson-Scott said. “So talking about death or COVID or what’s going on at home won’t be positively perceived.”
Senior women are also vulnerable right now, and it’s where recent achievements for women’s advancement is in real jeopardy, Feehan said. One in four senior women reported feeling exhausted, burned out or a pressure to work more, and if women in leadership positions leave them, women’s overall progress will decline.
Carol Lee Mitchell, strategy and segmentation executive with small businesses for Bank of America, said that when she considers what this year has been like for women, the word “fragile” comes to mind.
“This pandemic has showed that these things that we all relied on, health and healthcare, infrastructure, earning a living, travel for pleasure, suddenly became extremely fragile,” Mitchell said. “It’s made us review the things we take for granted.”
While the past year has been a devastating time for working women, there are actions companies can take to lessen the load, Feehan said, including reviewing goals employees may have to see if they align with pandemic-era work, and ensure that performance reviews reflect the current state of the world and the company.
They can also asses what amount of flexibility they offer around meetings, working hours or other policies to see if it aligns with what working parents and family caregivers need. Progress will also come in companies acknowledging that gender and racial biases exist and that an intersectional approach to policies and mentorship will strengthen your relationship with your employees, Feehan added.
Susan Jacobson, who is the Chamber’s board president as well as the president of Jacobson Strategic Communications and moderator of Thursday’s discussion, said she felt a mixed bag of emotions when first reading this year’s report and its recommendations for improvement.
“At first I was shocked, and then the more I thought about it, I wasn’t shocked at all,” Jacobson said.