The events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down. Under the highly challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue.
Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, 1 stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. 2 Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. And the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders.
As a result of these dynamics, more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. This is an emergency for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.
The crisis also represents an opportunity. If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term. The rest of this article summarizes the report’s main findings (and you can go even deeper with a behind-the-scenes chat with one of the report’s coauthors on our blog).
Progress toward gender parity remains slow
At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. This was most pronounced in senior management: between January 2015 and January 2020, representation of women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and representation in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent (Exhibit 1). Women remained dramatically underrepresented—particularly women of color—but the numbers were slowly improving.
The ‘broken rung’ is still holding women back
Despite gains for women in leadership, the “broken rung” was still a major barrier in 2019. For the sixth year in a row, women continued to lose ground at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered in entry-level management at the beginning of 2020—they held just 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent (Exhibit 2).
The COVID-19 crisis could set women back half a decade
Before this year, Women in the Workplace research had consistently found that women and men leave their companies at comparable rates. However, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce 3 . If these women feel forced to leave the workplace, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership—and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. All the progress we’ve seen over the past six years could be erased (see sidebar, “A closer look at the challenges that could force women out of the workforce”).
Companies are stepping up—but many aren’t addressing the likely underlying causes of stress and burnout
Many companies have taken important steps to support employees during the COVID-19 crisis. They are sharing valuable information with employees, including updates on the business’s financial situation and details about paid-leave policies. Almost all companies are providing tools and resources to help employees work remotely. Many have also expanded services related to mental health, such as counseling and enrichment programs, and offered training to help managers support employees’ mental health and well-being.
However, fewer companies have taken steps to adjust the norms and expectations that are most likely responsible for employee stress and burnout. Less than a third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic, and only about half have updated employees on their plans for performance reviews or their productivity expectations during COVID-19. That means many employees—especially parents and caregivers—are facing the choice between falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic, or pushing themselves to keep up an unsustainable pace (Exhibit 3).
There is also the issue of financial anxiety. Companies are putting policies and programs in place to ease employees’ financial stress. More than half have increased paid leave—which is an important option for employees who need time off but can’t afford to miss a paycheck—and about a third have added or expanded stipends to offset the costs of working from home. However, companies that are struggling financially may not be able to address the issue employees are most concerned about: the possibility of being laid off or furloughed. Sadly, for companies struggling financially or rethinking their business, it may not be possible to reassure their employees on this front.
COVID-19 could push many mothers out of the workforce
Decades of research shows that women do significantly more housework and childcare than men—so much so that women who are employed full-time are often said to be working a “double shift.” 4 Now women, and mothers in particular, are taking on an even heavier load. Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic. In fact, they’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare (Exhibit 4).
Meanwhile, for the one in five mothers who don’t live with a spouse or partner, the challenges are even greater. Unsurprisingly, single mothers are much more likely than other parents to do all the housework and childcare in their household, and they are also more likely to say that financial insecurity is one of their top concerns during the pandemic.
One in three mothers have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of COVID-19
Given the enormous challenges mothers are facing at work and at home, two things should come as no surprise: many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, and mothers are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps than fathers (Exhibit 5). Among mothers who are thinking about downshifting or leaving, a majority cite childcare responsibilities as a primary reason.
Companies are at risk of losing women in leadership
Senior-level women are under the same pressure to perform right now as senior-level men—and then some. Women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure—so when the stakes are high, as they are now, senior-level women could face higher criticism and harsher judgement. 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. 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.
Not surprisingly, senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out, under pressure to work more, and “as though they have to be ‘always on.’” And they are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Almost three in four cite burnout as a main reason.
Companies can’t afford to lose women leaders
The possibility of losing so many senior-level women is alarming for several reasons.
The financial consequences could be significant. Research shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50 percent higher when women are well represented at the top. 5 Beyond that, senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity: more than 50 percent of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared with about 40 percent of senior-level men (Exhibit 6). And they’re more likely to mentor and sponsor other women: 38 percent of senior-level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, compared with only 23 percent of senior-level men.
If women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions.