In some way, shape, or fashion, COVID-19 has affected everyone. However, it hasn’t affected everyone equally. Women are more likely to be unemployed than men. And those who are still employed tend to fall into one of two groups: mothers working from home who struggle to balance work, cleaning, parenting, and schooling; and women on the front lines – many of whom are also mothers – with high exposure rates and low pay rates. And neither group is receiving the support that it needs.  

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that in September 2020, four times more women than men left the workforce. By November (the latest data available) the unemployment rate was 6.7% for men and 6.1% for women. Both at home and abroad, women have been disproportionally affected by closures and layoffs.  Lisa Kaess, an economist and the founder of Feminomics, points to a McKinsey study which reveals that even though women make up 39% of global employment, they account for over half of worldwide layoffs.  “In the US, where women comprise approximately 46% of workers before COVID-19, McKinsey estimates that even after factoring in industry mix differences, they theoretically should represent 43% of job losses, but instead, they make up 54% of them,” Kaess says. 

Out of Work, Out of Time

A Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.Org/McKinsey & Company, found that mothers, Black women, and senior level women have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. 

“This is the sixth year of the study—and these are the starkest findings we’ve ever had,” says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org and one of the report’s authors.  She had a pretty good idea that COVID-19 would take a heavy toll on women. However, Thomas says it’s even worse than anyone thought.

“One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of this crisis,” she says. “That’s millions of women—in a single year, we could lose all the progress we’ve seen for women in management since the first year of this study.” 

If she had a panic button, Thomas says she would be hitting it.

Although several groups of women are facing distinct challenges, mothers stand out as the segment of the workforce most vulnerable to being displaced.  “We all know the bulk of housework and childcare in heterosexual couples is still done by women, but COVID-19 has thrown that dynamic into high relief.” 

In fact, Thomas says that working mothers are three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and childcare right now – and many are spending an additional 20 hours or more per week on these tasks.  “For some, it’s even harder—Latina and Black mothers, for example, are more likely than white mothers to be managing all of their family’s housework and childcare during the pandemic.” 

Alexis Krivkovich, McKinsey senior partner and co-author of the report, adds, “While our research shows that 1 in 4 women are considering scaling back or stepping out of the workforce because of the pandemic, among working mothers, that number is 1 in 3.”

Like Thomas, she says this is a huge deal because past research has never shown gender attrition differences. “Our research has long shown mothers disproportionately take on the majority of household responsibilities, but under COVID-19, they’re now 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be adding an extra 3 hours a day of workload.” And Krivkovich says it’s no wonder why the jobs report revealed 865,000 women left the workplace in September, compared to 216,000 men.

The pandemic was a perfect storm of women working in industries more likely to shut down, and serving in traditional roles in the household. “I believe the loss of jobs has also arisen from women being burdened unduly by the shutdown of schools and daycare facilities, resulting in working women shouldering more of the child rearing activities,” says Beena Sukumaran, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at Miami University in Oxford, OH. 

“This has placed a great burden on women as they juggle work and family with very little outside support.” The gender pay gap was already closing at a leisurely pace, but now, even that slow rate of progress is in danger of being reversed.  “The effects on pay and women’s careers will be long term, because a break in employment can mean a huge disruption to career progression,” Sukumaran says.

Juggling Act

Working from home has resulted in both advantages and disadvantages for mothers. The hassle of getting dressed and dressing the kids, shuffling kids to school, and commuting to work, is temporarily on hold.  However, the end result of these hectic morning rituals was usually a quiet, professional workplace environment. 

When everyone’s at home, it’s nearly impossible to virtually replicate an office environment. “We know women bear a disproportionate share of unpaid work, which has risen significantly with children at home and elder family members less mobile and more vulnerable,” Kaess says. And she points to a Chubb survey that found that even the home work environments of men and women tend to be different. “While 49% of men worked from a home office (versus 37% of women), the kitchen table – which is a much more disruptive environment – was twice as likely to be the home setup for work for women (23% vs 11% of men),” Kaess explains.

Working from home, especially while navigating homeschooling or virtual learning, has proven to be especially detrimental to working mothers. A study by Perceptyx, an employee listening and people analytics platform for enterprise organizations, reveals that roughly half of parents believe that distance learning will negatively impact their work.

  • 51% reported that they would be distracted either moderately or greatly  
  • 46% reported that their work productivity would decline either moderately or greatly 

And since women tend to be in charge of their kid’s learning, they’re more likely to experience these disruptions. “Reference to the double burden – of work and family care – arguably was in danger of becoming almost a cliché,” says Ariane Hegewisch, Program Director for Employment & Earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.  “The COVID crisis, with schools and child care centers closed, and millions of parents suddenly asked to work full-time from home, while also finding time to look after their children, has given new meaning to that term.” And yet, not surprisingly, women are always disproportionately affected.  “One survey of working parents found that for every one hour of uninterrupted work mothers managed to find, fathers found three,” Hegewisch says.

The Leadership Pipeline

If you thought that employers appreciate that their employees who are mothers are trying to juggle work, family responsibilities, and school requirements, you’d be wrong.  According to Thomas, mothers are worried that their home responsibilities will negatively impact how they’re viewed as an employee. “Mothers are far more likely than fathers to worry that their job performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities during COVID-19.” 

And she admits that they have reason to be concerned, since research reveals that mothers are judged as less committed and less productive than both fathers and women without children. 

“This ‘motherhood penalty’ existed long before COVID-19—you can imagine how much worse it is now, with kids showing up on video calls and mothers trying to fit homeschooling into a full workday.” 

In fact, the Perceptyx study actually asked non-parents how they viewed co-workers who are parents. The results reveal:

  • 39% of non-parents believe co-workers who are parents are more distracted
  • 29% on non-parents believe their co-workers who are parents are less productive

And that’s not all. These views lead to another opinion that explains why working mothers are so concerned about how they’re viewed:

  • 25% of non-parents say that their own workload has increased and become more difficult to manage because of their co-workers who are parents 

The dangers of this perception are obvious. Companies promote employees who they believe add value to the organization. However, they’re more likely to let employees go when they think these workers aren’t pulling their own weight. 

“All parents indicate that managing remote learning for their kids is distracting, making them less productive when working remotely – and this naturally raises concerns about job security,” explains Sarah Johnson, VP of Enterprise Surveys and Analytics at Perceptyx. “However, women executives/vice presidents report the highest levels of job insecurity, as they also report the highest levels of distraction and unproductive time working at home.”  

The leadership implications are staggering. “Among senior leaders who believe carrying out distance learning from home will place an extremely difficult burden on their family, mothers are more than 1.5 times more likely to report they do not intend to stay at their current employer for at least the next 12 months as compared to fathers,” Johnson says. And she warns that as a result of the demands of distance learning, we risk losing decades of progress toward breaking the glass.

Here’s something else to consider: A report by Nulab, an international company that creates productivity software, explores how current managers obtained their leadership role. “Our study found that female managers are more likely than their male counterparts to attribute their path to leadership to taking on additional work and volunteering for additional responsibilities,” says Analisse Dunne, People Ops Manager at Nulab. 

But what mother has time to do that while caring for kids 24/7? “Having a virtual office makes it increasingly difficult for many to achieve work-life balance,” Dunne says. “There’s no question that women are being pulled in a few directions; for some, advancing into leadership roles means prioritizing their career, which is easier said than done.”

Although technology is helping to advance gender equality, in the current pandemic environment, it’s not enough to counteract the pandemic’s effects. “Even in white collar industries, the effect on women will be long term because of the disruption to their careers,” says Sukumaran. “For example, in academia, there is already lots of discussion about women’s careers being impacted due to the inability to do research and devote time to research/teaching.”  Fortunately, she says, most universities are at least acknowledging that this is a problem. “Most universities are allowing for extension of the tenure clock, which is a very positive thing to do.” 

Women on the Front Lines and Other COVID-19 Challenges

The bulk of this article has focused on women working from home, but there’s another group of women who may be faring even worse – those on the front line.  “While it may be early to draw any long-term conclusions regarding the impact of COVID-19 on men, women and the economy, it’s clear that the first rounds have been particularly rough on women, impacting them more directly and exacerbating longstanding structural issues in the labor market,” says Kaess. 

According to data from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, women make up 64.4% of workers in all frontline industries. They’re 85.2% of childcare and social services workers, and 76.8% of health care workers. Women are also 53% of workers in building cleaning services, and 50.5% of workers in grocery, convenience and drug stores. Many of them are risking their lives – and by association – the lives of their immediate family members – in what are often low-wage jobs with inadequate or nonexistent health insurance coverage. 

In addition, the Women in the Workplace report reveals other concerns. The biggest challenges tend to vary by specific groups of women. For example, Latinas are more concerned than other women about being laid off or furloughed. On the other hand, LGBTQ+ women are almost twice as likely to say that mental health is one of their biggest concerns in the pandemic. Other concerns that rank high among employees include burnout, physical and mental health of loved ones, and of course, financial insecurity.

And Kaess provides a grim reminder of another threat. “According to the United Nations,  lockdowns have exacerbated what it calls the shadow pandemic of domestic violence,” she says. “At home, men can control women’s access to devices, destroy work resources, refuse to assist with child care, and prevent women from completing work tasks.”  

The Way Forward

So, how can companies respond to the multitude of challenges facing women in general, and mothers in particular?  “Understand that employees – especially working mothers – can’t live up to ‘business as usual’ expectations during this crisis—nobody can,” says Thomas. “To better support their employees, companies should be asking questions like: Are the goals we set before the pandemic still reasonable? Should performance reviews look different this year?”

And she says they should also establish new working norms. “For example, no late-night calls or emails, to help employees set clear boundaries between work and personal time.”

Thomas and Krivkovich’s report also outlines several other concrete steps that companies can take to show support for women workers. 

  • Childcare/homeschooling challenges can be addressed with parenting and homeschooling resources. 
  • The performance review process can be changed to reflect realistic productivity expectations and acknowledge that women are experiencing burnout. 
  • Mental health counseling, health checks and healthcare services, personal well-being and enrichment programs, and even bereavement counseling can address many mental health and well-being issues. 
  • Financial anxiety can be addressed by providing emergency loans and grants, stipends to offset the costs of working from home, and job training and reskilling. 

Companies – in fact, all of us – should also realize what’s at stake. “Without clear and focused action to support these women executives, organizations could easily lose a decade or more of progress made moving women into leadership roles,” Johnson warns. 

However, it’s also important to provide solutions for women who are not in white collar jobs. 

“I recommend premium pay for employees who are working on the frontlines,” says Sukumaran. “Companies should also provide workers with family leave when their employee has to take care of a family member who is ill or unable to take care of themself.” 

Unless the trajectory is changed, women will be the worse for it, but as go women, so goes the world. “Companies should be cognizant of the fact that if they lose women due to the undue pressures they are facing now, their future workforce needs will not be met,” Sukumaran warns.  

After the pandemic, she says it will be necessary to examine how the pandemic has affected women’s careers. “And then, try to mitigate that by ensuring women are promoted equally and there will not be lasting pay inequities,” Sukumaran advises. 

The statistics look grim, but Krivkovich believes that all is not lost – if companies take an aggressive approach. “They need to act quickly to make bold structural changes to increase flexibility, expand policies, combat bias, and build towards a more empathetic workplace that’s welcoming for all.”