- Jennifer Pope
- Oct 7
Covid-19's Sobering Impact on Working Women (especially Black Women) and Steps to Making Things Better
Corporate America is at a pivotal crossroads. Without question, Covid-19’s impact has presented challenges never before experienced by companies. One of the most significant impacts is the detrimental effect it has had on advancing diversity and gender equality in the workplace.
In a joint effort with McKinsey & Company, LeanIn.org released their 2020 study #WomenInTheWorkplace, the results of which are vastly different from previous years' studies. This year’s report focuses on how the pandemic has impacted women at work, women of different races and ethnicities, working mothers, women in leadership and women with disabilities.
The results are sobering: one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.
Between 2015 and 2019, studies showed slow to continual progress in women’s initiatives in the workplace. This positive shift occurred mostly in senior management. Between 2015-2020, women in SVP roles grew from 23-28%, and from 17-21% in C-suite roles. These gains in women’s leadership roles were significant, but there was still a barrier to the first step to manager roles. For instance, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted, with numbers even lower for Black and Latina women. Women held just 38% of manager positions. Covid-19 has the potential to erase these gains. If as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce, there will simply be fewer women to promote to manager and senior level positions - eroding the advancements made over the last six years.
As a result of Covid-19, anxiety is at an all-time high in the workplace. Employees feel the pressure to always be "on call," as well as personal pressures such as childcare, homeschooling, and caregiver responsibilities. Burnout and exhaustion is real and crippling. Many employees have been laid off or experienced reductions in their salaries, and those who have maintained their positions worry about financial insecurity. Distinguishing the line between work and home has become even more evasive and establishing that line remains difficult.
Employees say their biggest challenges during Covid-19 are:
- Anxiety over layoffs or furloughs
- Mental Health
- Childcare and/or Homeschool Responsibilities
- Physical and Mental Health of Loved Ones
- Financial Security
Factors predictive of whether an employee considers downshifting or leaving (amplified by Covid-19)
- Lack of Flexibility at Work
- Housework and Caregiving Burdens
- Worry that Performance is Being Negatively Judged Because of Caregiving Responsibilities
Discomfort in Sharing Challenges with Teammates or Managers
- Feeling Blindsided by Decisions that Affect Day-to-Day Work
- Feeling Unable to Bring their Whole Selves to Work
Many companies addressed these concerns by providing their employees mental health services, counseling, training and enrichment programs, but fewer employees have taken steps to adjust the norms that are directly contributing to burnout.
Less than one-third of companies have adjusted their performance criteria to account for the challenges created as a result of Covid-19. Employees who are also parents and caregivers with increased home life responsibilities may now be falling short of company expectations. Financial insecurity is also weighing heavily on employees, and unfortunately, not all companies are in financial positions to put policies in place to ease this stress.
Mothers in the Workplace
During Covid-19, work expectations have stayed mostly the same, but responsibilities at home have increased - resulting in what is often referred to as a “double shift.” These working mothers are 1.5x more likely to spend 3+ hours a day on housework and childcare than fathers, equating to 20 hours a week - a part-time job!! Challenges for single mothers are even greater. But the hardest hit among working mothers is Latina and Black mothers, who are more likely to be a family’s sole breadwinner or have a partner working outside of the house. Meaning they are more likely to be responsible for all childcare and housework in addition to their work responsibilities.
The result? These increased demands leave working mothers feeling more likely than working fathers to be judged by co-workers for caregiving during Covid-19. Combined with the anxiety about their ability to successfully perform and meet company expectations, working mothers are reluctant to share their concerns with colleagues at work. Employees caring for sick and/or elderly people also experience this bias and feeling of being judged negatively because of these commitments. It’s no wonder it’s women, not men, who are the ones contemplating leaving or scaling back because of Covid-19.
Women in Leadership
Women in leadership roles always feel the pressure to perform at a higher standard than their male counterparts. During Covid-19, this has only been exacerbated by the need to be "always on." As a result, they are 1.5x more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting or leaving the workplace because of Covid-19, and almost three in four say burnout is the primary reason.
The possibility of losing women in these key upper level positions is devastating on many levels. First, companies that have women at their top levels financially outperform those that don’t. And women at the top have a meaningful impact on company culture and are often champions for racial and gender diversity within their organizations. Losing women in these key leadership positions will mean a loss to women at all levels of a company.
Black Women Feel Less Supported
Despite company D&I initiatives, the reality is that Black women face more challenges in their workplaces than other races and ethnicities. They are promoted less and have less visibility in leadership positions. They are also less likely to have advocates within their companies, which put them at a disadvantage for promotions and new opportunities. Black women face more bias and microaggressions in their workplaces, leaving damaging effects on the women subjected to this harmful behavior.
When considering Covid-19, Black women are disproportionately impacted. Among their biggest challenges are the death of a loved one and the emotional toll that racial violence across the U.S. has taken on them. Yet during this time, they feel abandoned by their workplaces. Black women are less likely to report that management has inquired about their workloads or checked in on them during this recent period of racial violence. But they are hurting, and their voices need to be heard. Yet, they are reluctant to share their thoughts and do not feel they can bring their whole selves to work. Now more than ever, Black women need strong allies at work - but they do not feel they have them.
Women with Disabilities
Women suffering from disabilities experience stress, burn out, and exhaustion more than other groups of women impacted by Covid-19. Because of their disabilities, they are less likely to share their concerns with their colleagues, often resulting in feeling excluded or left out.
Employers must address head-on the challenges that women are currently facing. And companies need to do a better job supporting their Black workers.
Make work more sustainable
Companies must take a look at their productivity and performance expectations before Covid-19 and honestly assess whether or not they are still realistic. Companies may need to do an overhaul of project scope, deadlines, and measurable goals - only a few are currently doing this.
Companies should look creatively into giving their employees much needed downtime, whether it is in the form of giving specific days off to employees who need them, such as working parents preparing for the school year, or designated days for everyone, such as giving employees the last Friday afternoon off of every month. Even minor adjustments can have a significant impact on making work more sustainable during a time when employees feel they are always “on the clock.”
Reset norms around flexibility
Companies need to redefine work-life boundaries and establish new work norms - consider specific times of the day to conduct meetings, write policies outlining responding to emails outside of business hours, and increase communication among teams regarding work hours and availability of team members.
Companies should encourage employees to take advantage of existing flexible work arrangements, and leaders should be the first to model to their employees new work norms and flexibility in their own lives.
Evaluate performance reviews
Companies should reevaluate their performance review criteria. Pre-Covid-19 criteria may no longer be realistic. Leadership should take the time to review and recommend suitable changes. Implementing realistic performance review criteria can go a long way to help employees feel less stressed and burned out.
Take steps to minimize gender bias
Companies should educate employees about the potential impact of bias as a result of Covid-19 and conduct bias training so help employees understand the different ways that bias can manifest in the workplace. To combat gender bias, leaders can also track outcomes from company advancement to layoffs, ensuring men and women are treated equitably.
Adjust policies and programs to support employees
Especially now, companies need to ensure that their employees are aware of all resources and benefits that are available to them. It’s not uncommon for companies to offer a wide range of benefits that only a small percentage of their employees know about. It may be necessary for companies to reevaluate their benefits and programs and reallocate resources to programs that have the most beneficial impact during Covid-19.
Strengthen employee communication
Companies already know how necessary open and frequent communication is, but it is particularly critical in times of crisis. Updates and the state of the company should be regularly communicated to employees. Additionally, news should be communicated with empathy, so that employees feel valued and included. Open communication also builds trust between leadership and employees.
How to Better Support Black Women in the Workplace
Address challenges head on
Without many other Black women in leadership positions to act as mentors and advocates, companies must make a commitment to supporting Black women - from hiring to providing opportunities for growth and advancement. This initiative and its importance must be properly communicated to all employees.
Companies should also evaluate their diversity efforts and ensure they include not just race or gender, but race and gender, so that Black women are not left out of targeted interventions involving hiring, mentorship, and advancement.
Nurture a culture that supports and values Black women
Companies must create a positive and inclusive culture in which Black women are both valued and included. This can be fostered through diversity and allyship training for all employees. Additionally, giving Black women a voice to help shape new company norms/inclusive customs allows them to help shape their company culture in a meaningful way.
Leaders and colleagues can show their support and empathy to Black women by simply checking in on them and asking what their needs are. It may be hard for leadership to start these difficult conversations in times of racial violence in America, but not doing so can isolate and send a message to Black women that they don’t belong.
Undoubtedly, corporate America is facing a time for immediate action. With school starting and the end of year approaching, women are as busy and torn as ever. But with creative and adaptable solutions to the current workplace landscape, it’s possible for companies to safeguard and protect their pre-Covid-10 gains in workplace gender diversity. The alternative - losing up to two million women in the workforce - is not a viable option.
About Jennifer Pope