By Levi Sumagaysay
In another sign that COVID-19 is upending the U.S. workforce, one in four women are considering leaving their jobs or scaling back their work, according to a new study released Wednesday, which could threaten gains women have made in recent years.
Women in the Workplace, which McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org billed as the largest annual study on the state of women in corporate America, surveyed more than 40,000 employees from 47 companies and gathered information from 317 organizations. The study warns that mothers especially may feel burned out, and that those who are thinking of leaving or downshifting point to child care as the main reason.
“Over the six years of this study, this is the first time we’ve seen women wanting to leave the workforce,” Rachel Thomas, co-founder and Chief Executive of LeanIn.org, said during a news conference Wednesday. “We’re at risk of wiping out gains and losing millions of women. If I had a panic button, I would be hitting it.”
The groups said that business performance, as well as employee-friendly policies and racial and gender diversity, could suffer. Women are more likely to push for policy and diversity changes, the study said.
“If women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions,” the study says.
The study identified three subsets of women under distinct pressures: senior women, mothers and Black women.
The study acknowledges that many companies are taking steps to address the challenges the pandemic has brought to all employees, but recommends that they take specific steps to try to retain women and preserve gains in gender diversity, which many companies have publicly declared a priority. Among the recommendations for companies: Adjust expectations to make work more “sustainable;” be more flexible; rethink performance reviews; try to minimize gender bias; make policy and program changes; and communicate better.
The report also mentioned a couple of reasons for optimism. The pandemic has prompted companies to rethink their approaches to remote work, business travel and more, which could help level the playing field by diversifying the hiring pool and opening up possibilities for existing employees. And solidarity and empathy brought on by the COVID-19 crisis may bring long-term improvements at work.
Lareina Yee, McKinsey’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said during the news conference that though the study sounds an alarm and identifies this time as pivotal, “This is a moment for company action. The cards have not all been played.”