At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a “she-cession.” Globally, women lost jobs due to the pandemic at a rate 1.8 times greater than men. Meanwhile many women who had retained their jobs experienced extreme burnout. They were stretched thin by their responsibilities to their employers, families, and disproportionate share of the household responsibilities.
As COVID-19 appeared to recede, it ushered in “The Great Resignation,” when many employees voluntarily left their jobs. Some sought jobs they were more passionate about or had more flexibility. Others found they were happier not working at all. The resignation rates are higher among women than men, with women more likely to leave the workforce and men more likely to move to new jobs.
Now with the Delta variant on the rise and many workplaces continuing to cautiously re-open, we’re in a new phase of the pandemic. It may not have an official name yet, but perhaps it’s the “Spaghetti Era,” where organizations try different ways of working and see what sticks. Hybrid work models, increased remote job opportunities, and new platforms for remaining connected while physically distant, are all in experiment mode. To find out how leaders—specifically women—are adapting to this new phase, we surveyed 300 C-suite leaders from midsize and large companies worldwide between July-August 2021.
What follows are our key findings.
Nearly 4 in 5 C-suite professionals say the pandemic has negatively impacted women’s progress in the workplace.
One leader notes the importance of individual actions: “Start by ensuring women have a voice at the table. If a woman has a great idea, champion her and make sure she gets the recognition instead of letting someone else take the credit.” Another focused on the need for career paths and development: “I work with our HR management team to identify rising female talent throughout the organization, track their career paths and provide necessary training to develop their skills further.”
However, for all the work that is being done, there remains a gap between male and female leaders. Compared to men at the same level, women managers are taking more action to support their teams, from helping employees manage their workloads to checking in regularly on their overall well-being, according to the Women in the Workplace 2021 study.
While many leaders may believe they are allies to women and people of color, they must go beyond expressing support and take personal responsibility for creating a more inclusive workplace and ensuring there are opportunities for career progression across the organization. Organizations have some work to do in this area: Our study showed that just 25 percent of respondents are promoting women and only 12 percent are pursuing equal pay to support women’s advancement. While building confidence and giving encouragement are important (37 percent of leaders are taking this approach), there need to be more specific and tangible plans in place for ensuring women’s future advancement.
While bridging the work/life balance gap has been a major relief to many women, it can come at the cost of career advancement.
More than 7 in 10 C-suite leaders say remote/flexible employees may be passed over for leadership roles because they have less physical visibility than those working on site.
To mitigate potential missed opportunities and increase visibility for employees working remotely, leaders in our survey suggest increasing communication across departments (47%), volunteering for or owning projects (46%) and creating more opportunities for collaboration (45%).
Additionally, many companies view remote work as temporary, with 84 percent of C-suite professionals expecting female leaders to return to the workplace at the same rates as men, despite any benefits realized from remote work. Business leaders justify this viewpoint by saying the same rules should apply to everyone (46%) and that having female leaders back in the office is good for both business and staff (37%). But is it even possible to return to “normal” at work? Flexible work and hybrid working models have changed the definition of work, and what has worked in the past may not lead us to a better future.
Leaders in our survey offered advice to rising female leaders who are struggling to maintain a work/life balance:
While the tools and technologies for such changes have been available for some time, the mindsets of management often lagged, with many still viewing facetime and lengthy hours as the benchmarks of success. Leaders have the opportunity to explore new success indicators and adopt different models of working, with more emphasis on quality and speed of work than on time spent in the office.
Burnout and mental health issues are plaguing all leaders as the pandemic wears on, and women are particularly struggling to manage personal and professional responsibilities. Our study found that 60 percent of C-suite leaders suffered from burnout during the pandemic, and of that number, 69 percent say pandemic-related stress was a direct contributor.
Another 86 percent say they had a change in their personal responsibilities during the pandemic, ranging from caregiving to increased household responsibilities – and not just women. Men were more likely to say their personal responsibilities increased (72%) compared to women (63%). However, the Women in the Workplace report showed that mothers were more likely than fathers to worry that their performance is being judged negatively due to taking advantage of options that make it easier to balance work and life.
High levels of burnout may drive women to scale back at work or to leave the workforce entirely for a period of time—1 in 3 women are considering these options, according to that same study. While women should do what is best for their unique situations, if large numbers of female leaders exit the workforce and do not return, there is the potential for the gender pay gap to widen further. According to the Center for American Progress, if 3.2 percent of mothers with a child under the age of 6 and 3.5 percent of mothers with a child age 6 to 17 leave the labor force, the result would be an estimated $29.4 billion in foregone wages. In further keeping with their findings, if mothers with a child under the age of 6 reduce full-time hours by 4.5 percent and part-time hours by 7.2 percent, the result would be a $16.4 billion pay cut to families.
Both women and men need more support from their companies. Employee Assistance Programs are a great start, but organizations must go deeper in developing policies and practices that increase flexibility while also ensuring employees are not inadvertently penalized if they take advantage of such policies.
Challenges exacerbated by the pandemic have made it difficult for business leaders to meet their own goals—95 percent say COVID-19 impacted their abilities to be successful in meeting business, team culture and personal leadership goals.
With leaders stretched thin, many female employees may find themselves with little support beyond verbal encouragement and a prod to return to the office as soon as they are able.
When faced with endless to-do lists and new challenges, our first instincts are to eliminate or pause work on anything that isn’t a burning issue. Unfortunately, this often means that mentoring and development sessions drop to the bottom of leaders’ priorities. In this ongoing pandemic, leaders must maintain a long-term mindset and know that the support they are providing employees with today will pay off by developing new talent that can lead into the future.
We have the opportunity to redefine long-held constructs of what work means and what it should look like. Instead of wishing for better work/life balance, for more inclusive workplaces, for additional advancement opportunities, and for more mental health support, we can truly adapt to new ways of thinking and acting. Practices we implement today can have a tremendous impact on current and emerging leaders—the question is are we courageous enough to make real, lasting change?