The Future of Women in The Workplace

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The pandemic has been especially hard for working women. Here’s how we can help.

Somewhere between 5.4 million and 11 million women have lost their jobs over the last year, thanks to the pandemic. That’s worse than the job losses we saw in the Great Recession back in 2007 and 2008, when 2.5 million women and 5.5 million men lost their jobs. According to a study by the National Women’s Law Centerall of the 140,000 jobs lost in December were held by women.

When you divide up those December numbers by race, they show that job losses have even more deeply impacted Latina and Black women. Women of color had a higher rate of unemployment than women’s overall unemployment rate of 6.3 percent. The numbers in December revealed that 9.1 percent of Latinas and 8.4 percent of Black women were unemployed, compared to 5.7 percent of white women and 5.8 percent of white men.

According to a study released in September last year by McKinsey, this loss may not be temporary. The consulting firm found that nearly one in four women is considering downshifting their jobs or stepping completely out of the workforce as a result of the pandemic.

We risk losing an entire generation of women, and that would roll back all the progress made over the last six years.

Jess Huang is a partner at McKinsey and one of the co-authors of the study, which was conducted between June and August last year in partnership with She says that this is dire news.

“This is the first time in the six years of the research we’ve done on this topic that women were considering either leaving the workforce completely or downshifting their careers. It’s a big red flag,” she says. More than 300 companies participated in the study, and more than 40,000 people were surveyed on their workplace experiences. More than 45 in-depth interviews were also conducted to dig deeper into the issues.

“The data has borne this out too,” Huang says. “Women have actually stepped out and left the workforce at higher rates than men. We are at a crossroads.” McKinsey is doing the study again this year and will release data later this summer.

Why are women leaving the workforce?

The pandemic has placed particularly acute stress on working mothers — especially those of color — forcing them into furloughs and job loss at an exorbitant rate.

“The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced,” according to the McKinsey report. “Working mothers have always worked a ‘double shift’ — a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible — including school and childcare — have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the Black community. And the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders.”

Essentially, women are still doing it all despite the changing landscape of work and home, as a result of the pandemic. Women may be the breadwinner or one of a pair of earners in a household, but they have also taken on the additional full-time responsibilities of managing their kids’ education and activities during the pandemic. With the advent of virtual schooling and classes, and the closure of daycares, after-school programs, and kids’ sports, many parents have struggled to balance the pull of work and home. Still, the brunt of the responsibility for keeping the family on task, fed, clothed, and showing up for class has fallen to women.

“Suddenly, as a byproduct of the pandemic, people’s lives are much more on display now to both their company and their colleagues. There’s been a bit of learning in terms of how you adjust to that, and how you best support your colleagues and coworkers in this new environment,” Huang says.

What we risk if women leave the workforce or downshift their careers

While all those numbers are quite considerable, the larger impact of a mass exodus or exclusion of women from the new return to work could be incredibly devastating for both the country as a whole and also for the future of our society.

“If one in four women do decide to downshift their careers, or if all the women who told us they were going to leave the workforce left, corporate America would lose 2 million women from the workforce. That’s more than the number of women who graduate college and graduate programs in one year,” Huang says. “We risk losing an entire generation of women, and that would roll back all the progress made over the last six years and since the beginning of this study.”

While it’s impossible to say with any precision just how mass attrition from the workforce by women might affect the fabric of our society, many experts believe that the implications could be tremendous. Huang says that losing 2 million women from the workforce could measurably set women back by half a decade. According to the report, “If these women feel forced to leave the workplace, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership — and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. All the progress we’ve seen over the past six years could be erased.”

In addition to this, evidence shows that the longer employees stay out of the workforce, the less likely they are to ever return, even if they want to. Vice President Kamala Harris has called the exodus a “national emergency” and said, “Our economy cannot fully recover unless women can participate fully,” during a video call in February.

Changing the nature of work

All this data and dire warnings indicate that the nature of work has to continue to change and evolve to meet the needs of women (and men) in order to ensure that the worst doesn’t happen. According to Huang, companies have already recognized this and are beginning to think more long term about what the future of an inclusive and diverse workforce might look like. That consideration includes what the parameters around in-office and virtual work might be and what the future of corporate wellness might look like.

“An empathetic workplace is the future. That is a workplace that listens and collects that feedback from employees on an ongoing basis so that companies know what challenges they are facing,” Huang says. “For companies, it has been about how to support employees as whole people. That means resetting norms around flexibility while recognizing that there’s been a lot going on.”

Alexandra Feldberg is an assistant professor of business administration in the organizational-behavior unit at Harvard Business School. She and her co-author, Kathleen McGinn, are in the second wave of data collection for a study that should conclude (at least on the data collection) within the next eight months to a year. Feldberg says, “We’re looking closely at the experience of couples — both members of the couple — and their experience of work and child-rearing during the pandemic. We’re looking at what happens when we have this profound upheaval and both partners are working from home and have had a big change in their work lives.”

Professor Feldberg says that the first wave of data has shown that companies need to offer a more flexible and compassionate workplace in order to ensure that women return to the workforce. “Women’s work is often seen as more flexible than men’s in the resources that people divide up at home. For the participants in this study, the key thing is feeling that their employer understands that everyone has different experiences at home, influencing where and when they do work.”

Huang says that companies are just starting to think about and design around the future of work post-pandemic. “As companies think about what the future workplace looks like, what’s really important is to be really deliberate in the design. Not just around the programs and policies but even as employers create this new workforce. Leaders need to be thinking about whether or not their plan is going to introduce biases for the way people work, including women,” Huang says.

“A lot of companies have been talking about a hybrid return to work. What we have heard from women is that they are worried that if they choose not to return in person as often as their male colleagues because they are juggling work outside of work, they’re afraid that might hurt them and put them at a disadvantage. It’s important for companies to keep things like that in mind, and design around that and say, ‘Hey, how are we going to set norms and expectations so women don’t end up in that place?’”

Huang also notes that there has been a small upside to the pandemic and its impact on work. During the pandemic, companies increasingly began to see the employees more holistically and began incorporating wellness offerings into their digital workplaces to support them through this strange and stressful time. She expects these offerings to continue well into the return-to-work phase of reopening. “I think that companies have really seen that through the pandemic it is really important to meet the challenges of burnout and feeling like work is not sustainable,” she says.

Feldberg says that, in addition to considering the employee as a more complete human being, offering employees tools that they can use at their leisure is also of the utmost importance to get women back to work. “It’s really important to give people tools to access information independently. One of the things that has been helpful during this time is being able to have resources available when they are needed the most,” instead of offering them only at a set time.

The way we work has changed dramatically, and companies need to rethink and reimagine the workplace and the norms in order to encourage women to return to the workforce.

What women can do to return to work

While the usual advice applies (buff up your résumé, keep your skills sharp, network as best you can, etc.), there are a few things that women should collectively consider in order to support both themselves and other women looking to return to the workforce.

Feldberg suggests that getting really clear about roles at home and communicating in concise and clear ways can do a lot of good in helping support women returning to work. She says that the household is a miniature ecosystem, and the norms that we set up at home can and do (subtly or overtly) spill over into work (and vice versa). “For individual women, thinking about how you are navigating and negotiating things at home really becomes important right now,” Feldberg says.

Feldberg points out that many conversations happen at home around who is taking care of the kids, who’s responsible for dinner, and negotiations around space. “Every individual woman should consider the way you are dividing labor at home, as that has a direct bearing on what is happening at work for you. If you’re responsible for childcare, that’s one major constraint on your time, and the pandemic has put that into stark clarity. Gender norms are a really big piece of this story. They are subtle, and it all goes back to the importance of communication and explicitly dividing tasks, and thinking about why you are doing what you are doing.”

Ultimately, however, whether women return to work or not, the decision will come down to each individual and their situation. As Huang points out, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to ensure that women don’t drop out of the workforce altogether, and, as Feldberg notes, the solutions need to come both from inside families and the companies looking to hire.

“Mothers, senior-level women, and Black women are the three groups that have been hugely impacted by the pandemic, and all of them are facing different challenges. To be able to address those challenges, companies are going to have to take a pretty specific solution orientation to each challenge. There is no one solution that can address all the challenges that have come up in the last year,” Huang says. “It will be really important to keep that feedback loop open between families, employers, and employees and create very specific programs and policies to meet their needs. It will be vital to test to see what’s working, and pivot when it’s not.”

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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