Several years of progress that US women have achieved in white-collar jobs could be completely wiped out as a result of the pandemic, according to research from LeanIn.org.
In the latest edition of its annual Women in the Workplace report – produced in partnership with McKinsey & Co – the non-profit foundation for female empowerment notes: “Due to challenges created by the Covid-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether. This is the first time we’ve seen signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men; in the previous six years of this study, women and men left their companies at similar rates. (LeanIn.org, 30 September 2020)
“If these women feel forced to leave the workforce, 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 would be erased.”
In the report’s consideration, female workers are struggling with “unsustainable pressure and anxiety” stemming from seven factors:
- lack of flexibility at work;
- feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours – ie, ‘always on’;
- increased housework and caregiving burdens;
- worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of those caregiving responsibilities;
- discomfort around sharing with teammates and managers details of the challenges they are facing;
- feeling blindsided by sudden decisions that affect their day-to-day work and
- feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work.
Diverse demographics have been hit hardest: “Compared with women overall,” the report points out, “Latinas are more likely to worry about layoffs and furloughs. And LGBTQ+ women are almost twice as likely as employees overall to cite mental health as one of their biggest challenges during Covid-19.”
In an accompanying opinion column, LeanIn.org founder Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook – writes that, during the pandemic, “no one is experiencing business as usual”, so employers “should consider resetting goals and extending deadlines wherever possible”. (Wall Street Journal, 30 September 2020)
She adds: “They should also reflect on performance reviews: Is it fair to hold employees to criteria set before Covid-19? Should performance ratings be adjusted to reflect the reality this year? These are hard questions to answer, and every team is different. But nothing about work right now is typical, so expectations of employees shouldn’t be either.”
Would such measures make a difference to women’s lives – and which other steps should organisations take to empower their female staff at this challenging time?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The past few years have seen a real increase in logistical support for working parents – particularly women. Examples include extended school days, more nurseries, flexible working arrangements, family-friendly policies and shared parental leave, which has taken the place of the old maternity leave. For many women, the pandemic has collapsed those logistical support systems.
“In parallel,” she points out, “there’s an issue that I feel has been rather under-discussed: families have traditionally relied upon grandparents to help look after children – but even that has become untenable in the current environment. So, domestic burdens have fallen squarely back down on the shoulders of women, and we are back into conversations where couples must look at which of their two jobs earns the most and figure out how to support it. These decisions are being made in every household right now – and we know from gender pay gap statistics that women are likely to be earning less, so are therefore much more likely to step back from the workforce.
“As this report highlights, the overall effect is to constrain the female talent pipeline. And we already know that when women re-enter the workforce after career breaks, they struggle to return to the level of seniority they’d attained before they left. These are big problems, with not very easy solutions. Indeed, one of the most unusual aspects of the restrictions that the pandemic has placed on people’s lives is that there’s no convenient solution out there that can be paid for.”
Cooper notes: “There are two levels at which these problems have to be tackled. At the micro level, families have to ask, ‘How can we support both jobs?’ So that becomes the responsibility not just of the mother’s employer, but her partner’s, too. And at an organisational level, leaders must ask, ‘What can we do to offer support for exceptional circumstances in these situations, so mothers don’t feel that they have no choice but to withdraw from the labour market?’ The only way leaders will know which sort of help is required by whom is by actually talking to the people concerned. Each workers’ family situation will have its own, unique set of problems. While those problems may seem similar if you look at them across the board, how they configure, and how they are experienced, within specific employees’ households will always be different. As such, it’s important for organisations to develop local solutions for local problems.”
She adds: “The challenge this involves is not to be underestimated. For big organisations, it means thinking on a much more granular level, rather than applying blanket contingencies. For smaller organisations – for which losing a key employee can be particularly significant – it means harnessing their inherent sense of community and being sensitively attuned to, and curious about, what’s happening in workers’ lives.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on empowering