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Study Reports More Challenges for Women in the Workplace in 2020

Study Reports More Challenges for Women in the Workplace in 2020

McKinsey & Company and Lean In’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study, the sixth consecutive study of its kind, found that corporate America is at a crossroads when it comes to the status of women’s roles in the workplace. With workplaces struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, women—and their leadership status at work—have been negatively impacted.


What is the Women in the Workplace Study?

Every year since 2015, firm McKinsey & Company and nonprofit organization Lean In conduct a study of the state of women in corporate America in order to help companies promote diversity in the workplace. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s representation in the workplace was slowly increasing according to the findings of previous years’ studies, which includes the participation of over 600 companies. The study noted, “Between 2015 and 2020, the share of women grew from 23 to 28 percent in SVP roles—and from 17 to 21 percent in the C-suite. Women remained dramatically underrepresented, particularly women of color, but the numbers were slowly improving.”


What Are This Year's Findings?

COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of the workplace, but this year’s Women in the Workplace study found that the pandemic has the alarming potential to devastate the slow progress women have made in those leadership positions. 

According to the survey, up to 2 million women are considering taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether. In the study’s previous years, women and men left their jobs at similar rates, but not this year. The study found that “this is the first time we’ve seen signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men.” More women leaving the workforce means less women in leadership, and the slow progress made in the last few years would come to a halt.

The major factors noted in the study were burnout and that women feel responsibilities of balancing home, work, and childcare more profoundly than men. With the stress of their families’ health compounding the worry of losing their job, the study found that women feel like they can’t keep up and must always be “on.” Women of color face even more existing challenges in career advancement, but they’re also coping with the pandemic’s pronounced impact on the Black community and the emotional toll of racial violence.


What this Could Mean for Employers

If women leave their leadership roles or the workforce altogether, the financial and cultural consequences might be devastating. The study cited research that shows companies are 50% more likely to outperform peers when women are well-represented at the highest rung, and senior-level women are more likely than senior-level men to embrace racial and gender diversity.

Many women in leadership roles also serve as mentors to young women and women of color, the study pointed out. If those senior-level women leave the workforce, then it negatively impacts those mentees’ path to success. The effect? Companies could lose out on a generation of strong female leaders and the cultural and financial success that they bring to the table.


How Employers Can Support Women in the Workplace

COVID-19 has affected Latinas, Black women, Asian women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities in very different ways, so it’s important to note that no one experience is the same. While employers don’t have control over the pandemic, there are steps they can take to ease the strain of additional pressure women are facing and help them stay and thrive in the workforce.

According to the study, workplaces should focus their efforts on the following six areas:

  1. Making work more sustainable. Were there unrealistic productivity goals set before the pandemic that can be revisited? Can deadlines be extended?
  2. Resetting norms around flexibility. How can your company help employees reset work-life boundaries? Are there policies in place for expectations regarding email response times outside of work hours? Are there set meeting times so employees can plan out their days?
  3. Reassessing performance criteria. Key priorities for performance reviews might need to be revisited if the criteria was set before the pandemic. 
  4. Minimizing gender bias. According to the study, “The pandemic may be amplifying biases women have faced for years: higher performance standards, harsher judgment for mistakes, and penalties for being mothers and taking advantage of flexible work options.” Is your company fostering an understanding company culture? How recent was your company’s gender bias training? Is your company also focused on valuing and supporting Black women by eliminating microaggressions and workplace discrimination?
  5. Adjusting policies to better support employees. Does your company provide resources for parenting and homeschooling, more paid time off, or access to mental health resources? And if so, do your employees know about it?
  6. Strengthening employee communication. According to the study, 1 in 5 employees felt regularly in the dark regarding communication during COVID-19. Is your company taking extra steps to keep employees informed about major business decisions affecting them?

One thing is clear: Companies are more successful when women are well-represented in leadership. If companies can effectively address the workplace challenges of COVID-19 head-on, then corporate America will be able to retain talented female leaders—make strides in being more welcoming, inclusive, and successful than ever before.

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