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The Unique Impact Of Covid-19 On Working Mothers, Black Women And Women In Senior Leadership

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Supporting Today’s Workforce”

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As virtually all of us have witnessed or directly experienced, the events of 2020 have turned workplaces and work cultures upside down. Reports have shown that women have been more negatively impacted than men in key ways throughout the pandemic, including women experiencing significant increases in domestic violence and rape, higher unemployment rates for women compared with men, greater exposure to the virus due to a predominance of women in the frontline healthcare workforce, a heavier toll on mental health, and more.

To understand how 2020 impacted professional women specifically, I caught up Alexis Krivkovich, McKinsey & Company Senior Partner and co-founder of the Women in the Workplace report. Women in the Workplace, conducted by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, is the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. Based on data from 317 companies employing more than 12 million people, this year’s study shares updated insights on how the pandemic has impacted women at work.

Across all data, McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s research shows women are having a worse experience than men and this differs across Black women, Latina, Asian women, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities who are all facing challenges distinct to their realities.   

Here’s what Krivkovich shares:

Kathy Caprino: Alexis, according to study findings, companies are at risk of losing women. Why is that and what is the impact on business and workplace culture if they decide to exit the workplace?

Alexis Krivkovich: Over the last 6 years, we’ve never found a difference in the rates that women and men have left the workforce. But this year, our report shows that 1 in 4 women have considered either downshifting their careers or stepping out completely since the onset of Covid-19—as compared to 1 in 5 men.

If women take action and actually leave, we could lose as many as 2 million women from the workforce. Such a massive shift would have a huge negative impact on gender diversity for decades to come.

As our research has also identified a persistent connection between gender diverse leadership and profitability, this drop in gender diversity should be a huge concern for companies seeking to recover from a recession. Not to mention, women at senior levels are often the most frequent sponsors of other diverse colleagues—including more junior women, but also Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ colleagues—indicating that a loss of women could in the long-term setback diversity in all forms.

Caprino: What is the biggest challenge that Covid-19 has created for professional women, and how has this differed for women of color?

Krivkovich: Although all women are under pressure, our research shows that working mothers, women in senior level roles and Black women are being hit especially hard.

It’s been well documented that women typically take on the majority of household and caregiving responsibility. With the restrictions of Covid-19, however, we’re seeing the emergence of a “double double” shift. Among parents in dual-career couples, mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an additional 3+ hours per day on household work compared to before Covid-19. That adds up to 15 hours a week—a healthy part-time job—which may exacerbate burnout and increase concerns that their performance is being judged negatively. 

Women in more senior roles are confronting their own increased pressure. 54% of senior women cite feeling consistently exhausted and 47% feel the need to be always on—a strong predictor of why this group of women is considering stepping out.

Lastly for Black women, the pandemic has added additional burdens to what was already a worse experience in the workplace. 52% of Black women report being the “only” of their gender and race at work. They are often more likely to feel uncomfortable bringing their whole selves to work: 42% feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts about racial inequity and 22% feel like they can’t talk about the impact current events are having on them or people in their community.

Perhaps most strikingly, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to report the death of a loved one, yet 1.5 times more likely to feel uncomfortable sharing their grief or loss.

Caprino: What is the current reality for Black women in the workplace and how can companies increase support for this group of women in particular?

Krivkovich: Black women have always had a distinct, and worse, experience at work than other races and ethnicities. Black women are promoted more slowly. 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. We also know that Black women are more likely to face a wider range of microaggressions questioning their competence in the workplace. 

To better support Black women, companies need to take action in two critical areas:

Address the distinct challenges Black women face head-on

The first step to improving the workplace for Black women is to make explicit commitments to advancing and supporting them, accompanied by actionable execution plans. These plans must then be clearly communicated to stakeholders, along with a clear explanation of why it’s important.

Zero tolerance for microaggressions

In order to foster a culture in which Black women are fully valued and included, companies should make it clear that discriminatory behavior and microaggressions won’t be tolerated, and take real steps to make sure Black women get the formal and informal support that other employees do.

Caprino: What are the top three actions that leaders need to take now to build a better culture where all women—including working mothers, women of color, LGBTQ+ women, etc.—feel welcome and have equal opportunities to advance?

Krivkovich: We’re at a pivotal moment for the workplace—if companies rise to the challenge that the Covid-19 crisis has presented, then we could be laying the groundwork for a better workplace.

Leaders need to double down on mentorship, sponsorship, and the creation of advancement opportunities for women. Opportunity creation can’t stop just because workers aren’t in person. Leaders need to go the extra mile to ensure that every woman in their office has the needed sponsorship to move successfully to the next level–a task which takes both intention and commitment.

For individual leaders, it’s never been more important to keep communications flowing with employees. Our research shows that employees are three times more likely to be unhappy in their jobs if they are surprised by decisions that impact their work. Further, 1 in 5 employees told us that they are feeling consistently uninformed or in the dark since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.

Beyond work topics, leaders can keep an open door to discuss health and mental wellbeing. For many companies, this was a huge push in 2020 as companies recognized the increased toll brought by the pandemic and remote work, but more will need to be done as Covid-19 drags into a second year.

Caprino: What should organizations do to address the heightened challenges women are facing in the workplace?

Krivkovich: The pandemic isn’t over. Schools aren’t fully back in session and public health restrictions are likely to continue to strain women at work for months to come. To retain women for the long term, companies need to directly address the exhaustion, burnout and anxiety that women are experiencing, and continue to push forward on the existing barriers to women’s advancement and inclusion in the workforce. 

As 2021 unfolds, companies need to continue to expand efforts to make work more sustainable for employees. That could mean the continued development of new norms to ensure that employees have time to focus on both their work and at-home family responsibilities. Employers may also need to consider permanent adjustments to their performance review processes to reduce employees’ anxiety and remove any bias.

 To build a more welcoming, supportive and inclusive culture, companies can:

Make remote work really work

Remote work unquestionably offers more flexibility than a strict office schedule. As pandemic restrictions persist, organizations need to double down on the creation of sustainable mechanisms that can help women balance the demands of work and life.

As Covid-19 restrictions fade, companies need to think hard about elements of flexibility that can carry forward to support employees in the longer term.

Eliminate bias

More than ever before, companies need to recognize the impact that bias–both within and outside of our organizations–can have on our performance processes. Now’s the time to review performance systems to ensure greater fairness and opportunity for all–the two factors we know create greater engagement, belonging and loyalty among employees.

Continue to evaluate, innovate and expand policies for support

Even though pandemic days might feel like one long Groundhog Day, employee needs are constantly shifting due to the changing public health situation. Companies need to set up consistent methods of evaluating employee well-being, using the information gained to adjust policies and innovate to meet changing needs and continually expanding policies to provide the greatest support necessary. 

This moment is a crossroads, but the future is still ours to choose. If companies take the right actions now, we could see dramatic improvements in the ability of women to thrive and advance in the workforce. But without that action, we could see years of progress slip away.

For more information, visit womenintheworkplace.com.

Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professional women build their best careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs and Finding Brave podcast.

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