Pandemic puts gender parity under pressure

04 October 2021 5 min. read

An analysis of Covid-19 impact on women in the workplace has revealed a burnout crisis that could derail much of the world’s slow progress toward workplace parity. At the same time, companies are failing to adequately support women of colour in order to ensure they have the same opportunities to rise through the ranks of a business.

A year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic, women have clearly borne the brunt of the burden. According to multiple reports, the slow progress being made to equitably include women in the workforce is at risk of being obliterated by the Covid-19 pandemic – as at every stage of the Covid-19 crisis there has been a gendered fallout.

In the UK, for example, pre-existing inequalities, such as the disproportionate number of women working in low-paid, service industry roles, or the epidemic of unpaid domestic labour, causing women to be hardest hit by job losses and school closures. According to an IFS report in April 2020, women were about one third more likely to work in a sector that was shut down by Covid-19 than men, while and even after controlling for occupation, women were still significantly more likely to have lost their jobs than men, according to Cambridge University research performed at the same time.

Respondents experiencing burnout, stress or exhaustion, by gender

In this context, a new report from McKinsey & Company has further illustrated the pressures women have faced during the coronavirus crisis – and how they may end up pushing more women out of high-ranking jobs in the long-term. McKinsey’s data set reflects contributions from 423 participating organisations, employing 12 million people. Meanwhile, more than 65,000 people surveyed on their workplace experiences; in-depth interviews were also conducted with women of diverse identities, including women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities.

What the researchers found first was that women are more burned out than before the pandemic – and more so than men. In fact, the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled, with one-in-three women having considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career in the last year. This is a significant increase from one-in-four in the first few months of the pandemic.

With the march toward gender parity having slowed to a crawl in recent years, if so many women were to take such action, it would quickly undo the progress made to date. But how could employers look to improve the rate at which they address their gender gaps?

Representation of women by level

One of the assertions from the report was that treating women as an amorphous demographic was holding back efforts to bring about gender balance – and that taking into account other intersecting issues is crucial to turning this around. While women in entry level professionalised work are nearly at parity with men in those roles, the consultancy found under one-fifth of C-suite roles are held by women – but looking deeper into those numbers reveals a hole in the talent pipeline, which if plugged could change things drastically.

One of the most striking findings from this data set was that women of colour seem to lose ground at every step of the corporate ladder. According to McKinsey, this group is “severely underrepresented” at the top of businesses – even in comparison to other women. While white women account for 30% of entry level roles, and women of colour account for 17%, in the C-Suite this falls to 20% for white women – but a disproportionately lower 4% for women of colour.

When looking to address this, McKinsey asserted that firms need to hold themselves accountable for walking the talk on diversity. A recurring theme in the data the firm gathered was a disconnect between intention and action. For example, despite an increase in the number of white employees who say they are allies of women of colour – now at 77% – just 20% regularly advocated for opportunities for them. At the same time, while more than 90% of companies made commitments to focus on racial equity, only 40% of employees said companies have followed through.

Representation by corporate role, by gender and race 2021

“While women have made small gains at almost every level of the pipeline, including the C-suite,” McKinsey Partner Jess Huang explained, “women of colour continue to be dramatically underrepresented at high levels. And because of the persistent broken rung at the first step up to manager, there are just not enough women in middle management to promote to senior leadership.”

To help bridge this gap between companies and employees, Huang added that leaders could be held accountable by tracking diversity metrics and tying outcomes to performance reviews and financial incentives. Additionally, programmes to combat bias in performance reviews and hiring could be implemented to address the ‘broken rung’. Beyond that, when it comes to offering support to employees, having policies and resources in place like on-site childcare, parental leave, and mental health services could also have a meaningful impact.

Huang concluded, “You won’t have sustainable inclusive growth if you’re not rewarding the type of work that drives that outcome.”