Recent news on women in the workplace has been focused on the pandemic forcing women out of the workforce. Whether it is because of job loss or being pushed out because of the home and child care burdens, it’s clear that COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted working women. However, less has been said of the impact on the women who remain in the workforce. What is the ripple effect on their workloads, mental wellness, and careers?
Chief, a private network of senior (C-Suite and VP level) women leaders, has surveyed more than 300 members. Not only do these women face greater visible and invisible demands as they lead their companies through these difficult times, but they are more stressed, pushing many close to burnout. Some are planning to leave their positions sooner than they anticipated.
Through an interview with Chief co-founder and CEO Carolyn Childers and co-founder Lindsay Kaplan, they highlight key survey findings, what is happening to the women leaders that remain in the workforce and what we must do to reverse these trends that threaten to erase the decades of progress women have made.
The Visible Demands
Seventy-one percent of women leaders surveyed say they are shouldering a higher level of professional responsibility since the start of the pandemic. The impact of the current childcare crisis on all women, regardless of whether they are taking care of children at home, is also evident. While the majority (65%) of the women surveyed are caregivers and therefore juggling greater family and work demands, women who don’t have caregiving responsibilities say they are taking on more professional responsibilities to close the gaps. Seventy-seven percent of women leaders who are not caregivers feel that they’ve had to work harder in the workplace than their co-workers who are also caregivers.
The Invisible Demands
The survey results also brought to the surface the hidden burden these women leaders face— the invisible work that becomes part of their leadership roles. According to co-founders Childers and Kaplan, since no business looks exactly the same now as it did at the beginning of the year, these senior leaders already have a full plate as they’re continuously looking for ways to strategically reposition their companies to take advantage of opportunities, or pivot for survival. But there is also an unstated expectation, based on gender, to manage the other parents and caregivers on their teams. This expectation is in addition to being expected to oversee the team’s mental health and mental well-being. When these already overburdened women are the only women leaders in the room, they also become the de facto mentor to all the other women, which is in addition to their increased personal family responsibilities because of the pandemic. While many of these hidden burdens were present even before the pandemic, the burden is now even more significant, and the emotional toll it takes is magnified.
Greater Stress and Isolation
Stress and isolation have increased for almost everyone, with 68% of the women surveyed reporting feeling more isolated and lonelier, while 77% reported being “more” or “much more” stressed. A quarter (25%) of the women surveyed are even planning on leaving their companies sooner than expected. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) executive women were also more likely to say they were “much more stressed” than their white counterparts (49% vs. 37%).
The Power of Community Support
The study highlighted a few positive ways of coping with these increased demands. They found that 90% of women feel an obligation to speak up for other women during these times, and 66% say they are more open to discussing their stress levels with colleagues now than before the pandemic. Co-founders Childers and Kaplan describe 2020 as a year with no playbook. They believe one way to build the new playbook is by finding a community of women dealing with similar issues and supporting one another. Given that our personal and professional lives are now so intertwined, the ability to normalize, feel less isolated, and process this “roller coaster ride” is also critical, they believe, to workplace wellness.
What women leaders need
The results highlight the fact that repairing the impact of COVID-19 on women as individuals and as a group will continue long after the pandemic ends. Even before the pandemic, at the current rate of change, it would take over 200 years to close the gender gap in business, and now COVID-19 threatens to wipe out all the progress made over these last several decades. The women surveyed felt childcare support was the most critical assistance needed to help all women employees. Co-founders Childers and Kaplan think that while women supporting one another is important, we can not stop there. They believe companies must also see the alarming burden, heightened levels of stress, and the herculean efforts women leaders undertake to manage both their visible and invisible responsibilities. They hope these results will also help to find ways to solve these challenges and accelerate the progress needed to close the gender gaps