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 workforce3 . 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.
Black women are less likely to feel supported at work during COVID-19
Black women have always faced huge barriers to advancement. Now, in addition to the heightened pressures that Black women who are mothers and senior leaders are experiencing, they are also dealing with distinct issues because of their race. The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected Black people, and incidents of violence toward Black people in the United States have exacted a heavy emotional and mental toll on Black women. On top of all this, many Black women do not feel supported by managers and coworkers (Exhibit 7).
The workplace has always been more unequal for Black women
Compared with their colleagues of other races and ethnicities, Black women have always had distinct, and by and large worse, experiences at work. They are promoted more slowly than other groups of employees and are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership. They are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to say their manager advocates for new opportunities for them. And they have fewer interactions with senior leaders, which means they often don’t get the sponsorship and advocacy they need to advance. Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that Black women are less likely than employees of other races to report they have equal opportunity to advance at work.
Black women also deal with more day-to-day bias in their workplaces. They face a wider range of microaggressions, from having their judgment questioned to hearing demeaning remarks about themselves or people like them. Additionally, half of Black women are often Onlys for their race. Black women who are Onlys are especially likely to feel scrutinized, under increased pressure to perform, and as if their actions reflect positively or negatively on people like them.
Now, Black women are facing even more challenges
Black women are being disproportionately affected by the difficult events of 2020. They are more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. And incidents of racial violence across the United States are exacting a heavy emotional toll.
Ideally, work would be a supportive place for Black women amid these national and global crises. Unfortunately, for many, that’s not the case. Black women are less likely than women overall to report that their manager has inquired about their workload or taken steps to ensure that their work–life needs are being met.6 Fewer than one in three Black women report their manager has checked in on them in light of recent racial violence or fostered an inclusive culture on their team. Plus, Black women are far less likely than white colleagues to say they have strong allies at work.
All of this is having an impact on Black women. They are more likely than employees of other races and ethnicities to feel uncomfortable talking with colleagues about the impact current events have had on their community and about their own grief and loss. They also feel more reluctant to share their thoughts on racial inequity. And compared with other employees, Black women feel more excluded at work and are less likely to say they can bring their whole selves to work.
How companies can better support Black women
Black women were already having a worse experience in the workplace than most other employees. Now they’re facing the same challenges other women are—plus painful and isolating challenges rooted in racism. To better support Black women, companies need to take action in two critical areas.
1. Address the distinct challenges of Black women head-on
Companies need to address the distinct experiences of Black women, who face obstacles rooted in both racism and sexism. The first step is making a public and explicit commitment to advancing and supporting Black women. This commitment should be communicated to employees, along with a clear explanation of why it’s important. Many employees don’t realize that Black women are having a markedly worse experience at work. But for six years, this study has shown this to be true: compared with women of other races and ethnicities, Black women face more systemic barriers, receive less support from managers, and experience more acute discrimination. If employees understand this, they will be more likely to champion the Black women in their organization.
To effectively turn their commitment into action, companies should adopt an intersectional approach to their diversity efforts. Many corporate diversity efforts focus on either race or gender, which means women of color may end up being overlooked. In contrast, when companies set goals and track outcomes by gender and race combined, they can more clearly see how Black women and other women of color are progressing. For example, if companies evaluate access to formal mentorship, sponsorship, and management training this way, Black women are more likely to get equal access to these critical opportunities.
2. Foster a culture that supports and values Black women
Companies need to foster a culture in which Black women—and other traditionally marginalized employees—feel like they belong. There are two equally important parts of this: making it clear that disrespectful behavior won’t be tolerated and taking proactive steps to make sure that Black women feel valued and welcome.
Many companies have specific guidelines for conduct that is not acceptable, which is a good first step. But it’s also important to articulate what positive, inclusive behavior looks like and celebrate examples of it in practice. Employees will be better equipped to do their part if they receive antiracism and allyship training; this will give them a more complete understanding of how to combat racial discrimination and how to show up for Black women as allies.
Finally, it’s important to reflect on organizational customs, rituals, and norms to make sure they’re inclusive. For example, are Black women being included in informal gatherings? Are team events held in spaces where everyone feels welcome and safe? Gathering input from Black women on what is and isn’t working for them is critical to this process—as is giving Black women a voice in shaping new company norms. The more that companies take into account the unique perspectives and experiences of different groups of employees, the more effectively they can create an inclusive culture.
The path forward
The choices companies make could shape the workplace for women for decades to come—for better or for worse.
The challenges facing companies right now are serious. Up to two million women are considering leaving the workforce. The “broken rung” that held millions of women back from being promoted to manager has not been repaired. Black women are dealing with additional challenges—including long-standing issues of racial bias—and getting less support from managers and coworkers.
There are two paths ahead. If companies recognize the scale of these problems and do all they can to address them, they can help their employees get through this difficult time and even reinvent the way they work so it’s more flexible and sustainable for everyone. If not, the consequences could badly hurt women, business, and the economy as a whole. This moment requires long-term thinking, creativity, strong leadership, and a laser focus on the value of women to their organizations.
To retain the women most affected by the challenges of COVID-19, companies need to take steps to reduce the additional pressures they’re experiencing. Here are six key areas where companies should focus or expand their efforts.
1) Make work more sustainable
A sustainable pace of work is essential to helping mothers, senior-level women, and all employees facing burnout get through this crisis. To make this happen, leaders and managers need to look at productivity and performance expectations set before COVID-19 and ask if they’re still realistic. They may also need to reset goals, narrow project scopes, or keep the same goals and extend deadlines. Currently, only a small number of managers are doing this.
Additionally, companies have found creative ways to give employees extra time off. For example, we’ve heard from companies that have offered “COVID-19 days” to give parents a chance to prepare for the new school year and from companies that close for a few Fridays each quarter to give everyone an opportunity to recharge.
2) Reset norms around flexibility
COVID-19 has made it much harder for employees to draw clear lines between work and home, and many employees feel like they are “always on.” Companies should look for ways to reestablish work–life boundaries. For many, this may require setting new work norms—for example, establishing set hours for meetings, putting policies in place for responding to emails outside typical business hours, and improving communication about work hours and availability within teams.
Companies can also encourage employees to set their own boundaries and take full advantage of flexible work options. Even when these options are available, some employees worry there may be a stigma attached to using them. To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will be measured based on results—not when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility—57 percent of employees say senior leaders at their company have done this during COVID-19. Better yet, leaders can model flexibility in their own lives, which sends a message to employees that it’s OK to take advantage of flexible work options. When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.
3) Take a close look at performance reviews
Performance reviews are an important part of running an effective organization and rewarding employees for their contributions. But given the shift to remote work and the heightened challenges employees are coping with in their personal lives, performance criteria set before COVID-19 may no longer be appropriate. Managers can relieve employees’ stress—and refocus on key priorities—by reassessing performance criteria set before the pandemic to make sure those criteria are still attainable. Bringing criteria into line with what employees can reasonably achieve may help to prevent burnout and anxiety—and this may ultimately lead to better performance and higher productivity.7
4) Take steps to minimize gender bias
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.8 These biases could show up in new ways during COVID-19: for example, when colleagues see young children playing in the background on video calls; when coworkers assume, consciously or unconsciously, that women are less committed to their jobs; or when managers are evaluating women in performance reviews. Given that managers and team members now have less visibility into their colleagues’ day-to-day work, they may be more likely to make assumptions about their performance, and this increases the chance of bias creeping in.
To mitigate the biases that women are up against, companies need to make sure that employees are aware of them. Leaders and employees should speak publicly about the potentially outsize impact of bias during COVID-19. Bias training can also help. In the past year, just one in four employees have participated in unconscious-bias training, and even employees who have participated in the past would benefit from a refresher. And finally, it’s important to track outcomes for promotions and raises by gender—as well as the breakdown of layoffs and furloughs by gender—to make sure women and men are being treated fairly.
5) Adjust policies and programs to better support employees
Many companies have extended policies and programs to support employees during COVID-19, from offering more paid time off to providing resources for homeschooling. Companies should make sure employees are aware of the full range of benefits available to them. Right now, there’s a significant gap between what companies offer and what employees are aware of. For example, almost all companies offer mental-health counseling, but only about half of employees know this benefit is available. The same trend holds for other valuable programs such as parenting resources, health checks, and bereavement counseling.
As organizations settle into the next normal, they should determine how effectively they are addressing employees’ biggest challenges and reallocate resources to the programs that are most valuable. Given how unprecedented this crisis is, they should also consider whether their benefits go far enough to support employees.
6) Strengthen employee communication
Open and frequent communication with employees is critical, especially in a crisis; when employees are surprised by decisions that have an impact on their work, they are three times more likely to be unhappy in their job. Yet one in five employees have consistently felt uninformed or in the dark during COVID-19. This suggests that companies should share more regular updates on the state of the business and key decisions that affect employees’ work and lives—and they should directly address what difficult news means for employees. It’s also critical that leaders and HR teams communicate with empathy, so employees feel valued and understood. Research shows that this kind of openness and understanding reduces anxiety and builds trust among employees.9
The road to progress
The COVID-19 crisis has prompted companies to rethink fundamental beliefs about remote work. Ninety-three percent of companies now say more jobs can be performed remotely, and close to 70 percent predict a significant share of their employees will regularly work remotely a year from now. 10 Employees see the benefits of remote work, too—almost eight in ten say they want to continue to work from home more often than they did before COVID-19.
This could be the beginning of a seismic shift in the way we work, with enormous implications. Companies may be able to tap into larger and more diverse talent pools, as opposed to limiting their recruiting to specific regions. And they already anticipate these benefits: 70 percent think remote work will allow them to increase diversity in their hiring. Moreover, remote work will open up opportunities for existing employees—particularly mothers, caregivers, older employees, and people with disabilities. If companies can create a culture that supports both in-person and remote workers, these employees will be able to take on jobs that previously would have required them to relocate, travel extensively, or manage a long commute.
The building blocks of a more empathetic workplace may also be falling into place
Many companies have made employee mental health and well-being a much higher priority in the face of this crisis. Employees have more visibility than ever before into what’s going on in one another’s personal lives. And companies say that the crisis has created a feeling of solidarity and fostered empathy and understanding among employees.
Taken together, these dynamics point to an increased focus on supporting employees as “whole people.” And when employees feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, good things happen: they are happier with their job, more optimistic about their company’s commitment to gender and racial equality, and less likely to consider downshifting their role or leaving the workforce. They’re also more comfortable sharing challenges with managers and coworkers, giving companies the visibility to make changes that improve employees’ experiences. It’s a positive cycle: the more employees can bring their whole selves to work, the more the workplace will work for them—and for everyone.
This is an edited extract from Women in the Workplace 2020, a study undertaken by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org. It builds on the Women in the Workplace reports from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, as well as similar research conducted by McKinsey in 2012. For more information, visit womenintheworkplace.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Sarah Coury is consultant in McKinsey’s Chicago office; Jess Huang is a partner in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office; Ankur Kumar is an associate partner in the New York office; Sara Prince is a partner in the Atlanta office; Alexis Krivkovich is a senior partner in the San Francisco office; and Lareina Yee is a senior partner in the San Francisco office.