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Women Are Dropping Out Of The Workforce: Here’s What We Can Do About It

Amid an uncertain and tumultuous year, one thing is clear: we are at a crossroads.

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In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed workforce trends several years forward. Remote working and automation are a level of prevalence that we couldn’t have imagined a year ago. But for companies seeking to achieve gender parity, progress could be rolling backwards.  

Every year for the past six years, McKinsey has reported on the state of women in corporate America in our annual Women in the Workplace Report. This year, the findings sounded an alarm – for the first time, 1 in 4 women told us that they were considering stepping out of the workforce or downshifting their careers. And in fact, shortly after we released the report, the September jobs report showed that 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in the month that many children went back to school remotely. It’s unlikely that these two events were a coincidence.  

Why this matters. This data is worrisome for multiple reasons. If every woman who has considered leaving her job or reducing her workload does so, we risk losing 2M women from the workforce. Women in senior roles, working mothers and women of color – particularly Black women – are most at risk. 

If this predicted she-cession happens, we risk losing the progress we have made towards a more equitable corporate world. But worse, we may also risk the future progress towards a diverse workplace, as women in leadership are more likely to champion diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and are more likely to be allies and sponsors to women of color.

Compared to senior men, senior women are 1.6x more likely to mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, 1.5x more likely to actively listen to the personal stories of women of color about bias and mistreatment, and 1.4x more likely to publicly acknowledge or give credit to women of color for their ideas and work. 

That support has never been more necessary. The report documents women of color feeling isolation, lack of support, and judgement at higher rates than their white peers. Lost support from senior-level female mentors and allies could thus have devastating long term impacts on the retention of minority employees.

For mothers, a group that includes Black women and senior women alike, additional stress at work is compounded with a significantly increased burden at home. Mothers are 1.5 times more likely to report additional 3 hours a day on household responsibilities – adding up to essentially another part time job. No wonder they are among the most likely group to be considering stepping back.  

What we can do about it. As the pandemic drags on into a second year, there are several steps that employers can take to limit attrition:

  • Make work more sustainable. Employers must continue efforts to ensure that they are setting practical employee expectations that allow women to create a sustainable pace and are fairly evaluated for their progress during the pandemic. 
  • Reset norms around flexibility. Increased flexibility has been one of the positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, but remote work has also led to a blurred line between work and home life. Employers should take steps to mitigate burnout by setting company-wide limits on meeting length, creating policies about responding to emails outside business hours, and empowering employees to disconnect and prioritize their personal wellbeing at the end of the day.
  • Take steps to minimize gender bias. As women and minority groups are feeling higher rates of exclusion and judgement during the pandemic, employers need to strengthen company culture by facilitating meaningful diversity and allyship training for all employees. 

Amid an uncertain and tumultuous year, one thing is clear: we are at a crossroads. Some companies will use the current global crisis to innovate for greater flexibility and progress towards more equitable workplaces. However, in the absence of action, we could stand to lose the progress we have made to increase representation of women in the corporate world. It is paramount that employers meet the challenge and provide increased flexibility, support, and resources if they want to retain their female employees and contribute to a better, more equitable world.

Alexis Krivkovich is the managing partner in McKinsey’s San Francisco office and a leader in the Financial Services Practice, overseeing FinTech efforts in North America. She helps companies align their organizations for growth and productivity. Alexis is a thought leader on financial innovation and diversity and is passionate about advancing women in leadership.

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