Updated: Mar 8, 2021
A collaborative study by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In found that women in the workplace are in danger of losing their footing amidst the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Women in the Workplace Study surveyed 40,000 employees spanning 47 companies and 317 organizations. Results showed that one in four female employees is considering minimizing hours or leaving their workplace altogether. Upon further analysis, there are three main demographics that are most at risk: mothers, women in senior leadership, and Black women.
This exodus would have a massive effect on small businesses. Women make up a large composition of small business owners, as the 2019 The State of Women-Owned Businesses study noted that 43% of all businesses in the U.S. are women-owned. While this may be encouraging at first glance, it also means that the professional loss can be more keenly felt if these business owners struggle to maintain their leadership roles during COVID. The same study showed that women-owned firms employed over 9.3 million employees in 2019. Employment numbers would be greatly impacted if these women chose to cut hours or leave altogether. Whether an as an employee or business leader, small businesses need women to thrive. Read below to see how the women in your office may be hit hardest by the pandemic, and what you can do to help.
UNDERSTANDING THE STRUGGLE
During COVID-19, the significant challenges that come along with being a working mother have understandably increased, signaling a major shift in how mothers are prioritizing their professional growth. Much of this strain is due to the additional work needed in the household, as the 2020 Women in the Workplace study noted that women are three times more likely to carry the load of housework and caregiving. Additionally, this pressure can be magnified when dealing with single parent households. This brings the issue of childcare, as the study found that 76% of mothers say childcare is one of their top three challenges in this time, in comparison to only 54% of fathers with young children who felt the same. These mothers are not only juggling immense challenges, but they are doing so with the added fear of judgement from coworkers. The study showed that mothers are twice as likely than their male counterparts to worry about how their caregiving responsibilities affect how they are judged in their work performance.
Women in Leadership Roles
Being a woman in a senior leadership role can be daunting in a normal year, let along during a pandemic. Women in leadership are often placed under extreme pressure to prove their worth above their male counterparts. Often this pressure comes with little support, as the study confirmed that these leaders are nearly two times more likely to be the "only" in their work environment- the only woman or one of the only women representing in places of leadership or the company as a whole. The study notes that these leaders are also more likely to feel pressure to "prove" their value, and this tension makes women 1.5 times more likely to consider downshifting their career during the stressors of COVID-19. This loss would be detrimental, as a previous McKinsey study found that companies where women are valued as top leaders are 50 percent more likely to outperform their competitors.
The trauma caused by the pandemic and racial violence that has plagued 2020 has created an unjust load of emotional and physical weight on Black employees. The study found that Black women are over twice as likely to claim that the death of a loved one has been the biggest challenge during this pandemic. Additionally, these women are lacking in support, as findings showed that only one in three of these employees had their superior check in on them in response to the racial violence that happened in 2020. These women must often choose between their racial identity and their identity as an employee, as feeling underheard and unrepresented is still a huge issue for POC workers. The study noted that Black women are nearly twice as likely as overall women to say they feel they cannot bring their whole selves to work. This is a matter of not only inclusion, but identity, and will only increase their chances of choosing to leave their workplace.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
All employers, regardless of gender, can take steps to further prioritize their female employee’s professional health. The study offers six key principles you can implement that may help your female employees feel supported and capable during the COVID-19 crisis.
1. Make your workplace sustainable for each employee. This may mean narrowing the scope of current projects, reassigning task loads, and generally making sure the current expectations are doable in the framework of a pandemic. Many businesses are finding creative ways to support their workers, such as offering "COVID days" to supplement days off needed to prepare for a child's schooling needs or other family and personal duties.
2. Challenge the norms around flexibility. As an employer, one way you can safeguard the emotional health of your employees is give them permission to draw clear lines between work and home life. While many are working from home, it can be difficult to find ways to disconnect from work. Setting concrete boundaries around when the workday ends, taking a break from email outside of work hours, and encouraging your employees to prioritize being present at home are all ways you can promote a positive work-life balance.
3. Evaluate how you review individual performance. While it is imperative that you keep a finger on the pulse of how your employees are operating, the old performance review criteria may not fit the current situation your business is in. Reevaluating your current review process is key to making sure your employee’s health is being prioritized.
4. Pursue ways of deconstructing existing gender bias in your office. The study summarized it best: "The pandemic may be amplifying biases women have faced for years: higher performance standards, harsher judgment for mistakes, and penalties for being mothers and for taking advantage of flexible work options." Your first step to combatting this is being aware of these obstacles through intentional education and review of current policies and practices (click here for Lean In's gender bias training).
5. Incorporate equitable policies. Reevaluating how your office policies help your employees is a great step in supporting both the men and women who are struggling with personal and professional balance during COVID-19. Now is a great time to review leave policies, sick pay, and all aspects of employee wellbeing and reimagine new solutions.
6. Keep communication open. The study showed that one in five employees felt uninformed during COVID-19. Opening avenues of communication on a more consistent basis can greatly help alleviate stress on your employees. Implementing scheduled Zoom meetings, weekly check-ins, and especially communicating about the more difficult aspects of office updates are all helpful ways to positively impact your employee's emotional wellbeing.
Women have and will continue to overcome the significant obstacles placed before them while pursuing a career, but they should not have to do it alone. Learning how to be an advocate for your female employees could save you from losing vital team members and promote your organization's overall health.
To read more about the 2020 Women in the Workplace study, click here.
To read more about Lean In’s gender bias training, click here.