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The Pandemic Hit Women Hard; Here's What Leaders Must Do Next

The Pandemic Hit Women Hard; Here's What Leaders Must Do Next

by Anna Truscott-Smith, Camilla Frumar and Bailey Nelson

Story Highlights

  • Women are struggling more with job loss, stress, burnout and wellbeing
  • Current trends suggest a difficult future for women at work
  • Leaders can follow these three best practices to help working women

The workplace has changed dramatically over the last two years. For some, the pandemic has opened the door to long overdue conversations about navigating work and life and achieving balance for a life well-lived. But the pandemic and its economic fallout are having a devastating effect on gender equality -- setting society back decades.

The pandemic's disproportionate strain on women is significant and varied:

Greater job losses. Since the start of the pandemic, women have suffered greater job losses than men -- a pattern that has continued into 2022. The Pew Research Center reported in June 2020 that 11.5 million women, compared to 9 million men, lost their jobs due to COVID-19 -- a reversal of historical trends with economic recessions.1

Higher overall stress. Women also took a harder hit to their wellbeing: Globally, women report higher rates of stress, sadness and worry than men -- and they're more likely to report that their mental health was negatively affected by the pandemic. In the U.S. and Canada, 62% of working women reported experiencing stress "a lot of the day" the previous day -- 10 percentage points higher than working men and a significant increase from 2019 levels (51%).

Larger increase in workplace burnout. Working women also report higher on-the-job burnout than working men do, and the gender gap in burnout has only widened during the pandemic. In 2019, 30% of women and 27% of men said they "always" or "very often" felt burned out at work. That three-point gap expanded to 12 points in the pandemic-era months of 2020, from March to December, and has averaged eight points in 2021 -- 34% of women and 26% of men this year have reported feeling burned out.

Increased pressures on working mothers. These pressures are greater still for working mothers. Compared with working women without children, working mothers are more likely to say their life has been disrupted "a great deal" by the crisis -- and they're more likely to report emotional and mental distress.

One reason for the disproportionate effect on working mothers is that the pandemic is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care and household responsibilities that women have long shouldered.

These pressures have pushed many women to exit the workforce or find part-time or hybrid work. Yet, in Gallup's experience, even women who cut back to part-time work often feel intense pressures of organizational expectations and professional pride that demand a full-time workload.

A Perilous Future for Working Women

Aside from the psychological and wellbeing effects, current trends may imperil the status of women in the workplace more generally:

A potential decrease in development opportunities. Working women -- who are more likely than men to seek flexible work arrangements -- may be passed up for advancement when their male colleagues return to the office, while they continue to work remotely. If employees who are physically present are more likely to reap rewards, gender inequities are likely to increase.

A potential loss of women in leadership roles. As many women leave the workforce because of the pandemic, the number of women in leadership pipelines will likely drop.

Gender inequality was a problem before the pandemic -- and in many instances, the crisis only accelerated existing trends and attitudes about gender roles. Many leaders have made diversity, equity and inclusion a priority for decades -- and gained ground. However, the pandemic has undone much of this progress. It has fueled attrition of talented women from the workforce and continues to place women at risk of serious illness due to burnout, stress and worry.

Even women who cut back to part-time work often feel intense pressures of organizational expectations and professional pride that demand a full-time workload.

Leaders must redouble their efforts toward gender equality and closely examine workplace policies to better empower working women and correct the disproportionate disadvantages working women are experiencing due to the pandemic.

Previous Gallup studies uncovered the common reasons why women leave the workforce -- as well as how leaders can create work cultures that make sense for women. These strategies were relevant prior to the pandemic and are particularly pertinent now. By embedding these practices in their work cultures, leaders can prevent gender disparities from worsening and start making progress again toward gender equality.

Here are three best practices for insightful leaders who want a workplace that works for working women.

1. Establish internal champions for women.

Internal champions and advocates -- both men and women within the workplace -- can uniquely promote a culture that empowers working women. For instance, champions can establish clear communication channels about support and development opportunities for women and working parents.

Further, through education and awareness, champions can expose gender biases and foster an atmosphere in which employees feel comfortable using flextime without fear of judgment or setting back their career goals.

For example, companies with gender-diverse teams have less group think, superior problem-solving, and higher productivity and innovation. Through communicating such insights, champions can combat gender bias -- within and beyond company walls.

Supported by brave leaders, internal champions can help women understand their choices and provide resources for reaching their goals, such as tailored development experiences, on-site childcare and increased mental health support. Further, champions can impress on managers that everything they do to support women's wellbeing furthers team performance and employee outcomes.

Champions can also fight for broadscale societal changes, such as improvements to childcare and school systems to better meet the needs of working parents. Any drive toward gender parity starts with efforts to change entrenched, widespread attitudes about women's roles in society. For example, while lockdowns and school shutdowns were a challenge for all working parents, women disproportionately assumed caregiving responsibilities -- often at the expense of their careers and overall wellbeing. Through education and support, champions can fight gender inequalities and help women live their best lives.

Further, through social media and other platforms, champions can tell the world about your company's efforts toward gender equality, such as how you develop women to become leaders, role models and high performers -- or how your workplace empowers working parents. Ultimately, champions can be powerful brand advocates who attract talented women to your company and work alongside leaders to achieve sustainable progress.

2. Forge new, flexible pathways for women to develop and advance.

Leaders should examine the career growth and development opportunities employees receive to ensure they grant development opportunities to all employees, including those who prefer flexible work arrangements. For instance, many women are interested in leadership -- but some might prefer remote work or want their career to take up less of their time right now.

Ask yourself, are development opportunities preferentially given to on-site workers? How can you ingrain flexibility in as many roles as possible so women can pursue career advancement while investing in their families?

Women disproportionately assumed caregiving responsibilities -- often at the expense of their careers and overall wellbeing.

While hybrid work is now widely accepted, women have long had to put up with the "flexibility stigma" that occurs when employees are penalized for taking advantage of such arrangements. Flexible work arrangements only succeed when they are based on trust, authenticity and accountability for performance. Women need to feel liberated to embrace flexibility without fear of missing out on opportunities for development and career advancement.

Women who can say their companies are doing "very well" at providing flexible schedules have higher levels of wellbeing than working women who say otherwise.

  • A meaningful culture of flexibility starts at the top: Employees need to see executives and managers living the behaviors they tout. Do senior leaders in your workplace have the freedom to leave work early to pick up children from school and jump back on email at night if it suits them to work in this way?
  • It's incumbent on leaders to connect women with the development they need and their ideal job at all stages of their lives. Get creative with development -- for instance, by introducing women to leaders outside your company who can teach them new skills. Meet women where they are -- accommodate the interests, passions and life stages of the individual.
  • Ask women about their interest in leadership, then make the aspirational attainable by providing accessible development, such as remote job shadowing and mentorship. Funnel women into all levels of leadership -- pay close attention to equal representation not only in senior roles, but also mid-level and specialist leadership.

A culture of high development not only fights turnover, but also fuels engagement. And when you invest in women, you invest in your most engaging managers.

3. Reskill managers to coach women.

While there are commonalities among working women, successful performance development requires appreciating and knowing each individual -- and not all women want or need the same things from a company. Part of helping women reach their full potential is discovering what they want to achieve professionally and personally. Managers can do this exceptionally well when they become skilled in the art and science of coaching.

When managers become coaches, they ask smart questions, listen to individuals and consider each employee's unique strengths. Through coaching conversations, managers can guide women toward their career goals and give targeted feedback.

Great managers also establish clear job expectations for employees, which is particularly vital for women who are adapting to hybrid work or for those who are juggling work and household responsibilities. The best managers promote autonomy and accountability by using fair performance metrics that are connected to outcomes, not where and when women work.

The best managers also ask women what they expect from their workplace. They don't make assumptions about women's aspirations -- they find out where each individual naturally excels and help employees pursue the opportunities they want. Managers should also ask about the types of support women would find most beneficial, from training experiences to flexible work hours.

The best managers also ask women what they expect from their workplace. They don't make assumptions about women's aspirations.

Skilled managers actively monitor for signs of burnout -- for instance, by asking women to rate their stress levels on a 1-to-10 scale, then initiating an open, supportive dialogue aimed at improving wellbeing.

Another way managers can mitigate burnout among women is to encourage them to set boundaries around their time availability. Women are more likely than men to feel like they're "always on" -- particularly with flexible work arrangements. Managers should establish clear priorities and deadlines, adjust workloads as needed and communicate the importance of "unplugging" from work.

Women Deserve a Bright Future in the Workplace

While the role of women in our economy has shifted over the last 100 years, our systems have not evolved to support them. Now, the pandemic has widened that gap and amplified issues of gender equality. The risks to women are very real -- and when women suffer, company performance and the global economy suffers, too.

Effective solutions will not only address short-term COVID-19 recovery, but also promote lasting improvements that are long overdue, such as closing the wage gap and creating better representation of women in the C-suite.

As the U.N. poignantly observed, women and girls represent half of the world's population and therefore half of its potential.

Like all employees, women simply want to be seen, heard and developed for the future. And the leaders who look after women today invest in a vital resource that will reap incredible returns.

Learn more about how current events shape the trends of the modern-day workplace:

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Anna Truscott-Smith is a Senior Research Consultant for Gallup in London.

Camilla Frumar is a Senior Consultant for Gallup in Sydney.

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