Will Women Be Pushed Out of the Workforce?

Christa Feazell
8 Oct

2020 is a year unlike any other, so we were expecting this year’s Women in the Workplace study from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org to be unlike any that came before it. Like everything else this year, the results reveal both a crisis and an opportunity. Women have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially Black women, and we are in serious danger of losing years of progress towards gender parity. The flip side is that businesses are becoming more flexible and aware of the benefits of diversity

Strap in tight as we break down the highlights of the 2020 Women in the Workplace study and what they’ll mean for corporate diversity and equity initiatives in 2021. 

COVID-19 Threatens to Destroy Years of Work

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The pandemic has impacted virtually everyone in the world in some way, shape, or form. The crisis has intensified existing challenges and created new ones that disproportionately impact women.

Working mothers often pull ‘double shifts’ to manage both their responsibilities at work and at home. The supports that made this possible, such as school and childcare, are now completely removed or dramatically changed. Black women especially have been hit hard, as they’ve also been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The repeated trauma and emotional toll of continued racial violence adds even more strain in an already difficult year. Many women feel pressured to downshift their careers or leave the workforce in order to deal with the compounding effects of the pandemic. The result is the unthinkable: one in four women are contemplating leaving the workforce.

This threatens to destroy years of work towards gender diversity. Corporate America risks losing out on an entire generation of women leaders and years of progress towards gender parity.

Barriers and Broken Rungs Remain

Remember last’ years’ conclusion of the existence of the ‘broken rung,' which prevented women from reaching higher leadership positions? Well, Since 2015, there has been slow, incremental progress towards increased gender diversity at all levels of business leadership. While any progress is worth celebrating, the numbers haven’t budged much in the past few years. Men still hold roughly 68% of all manager positions. 

The pandemic and its impact on work has intensified these problems. Workers report the main difficulties they’ve faced in 2020: 

  • a lack of flexibility from their employers
  • feeling “always on” 
  • housework and caregiving conflicts due to COVID-19
  • difficulty communicating with their teammates and supervisors 
  • their performance being negatively judged due to caregiving responsibilities
  • feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work 
  • feeling unable to be their “whole self” at work 

While many of these impact the entire workforce, they tend to hit closer to home for women. For example, a mother is more likely to worry about her performance being harshly judged due to her caregiving responsibilities than a father. In previous years, McKinsey’s study found that men and women left companies at comparable rates. 2020 has changed that: nearly two million women are considering leaving the workforce. 

Companies Are Stepping Up — Kinda

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The pandemic forced many businesses to adapt. This resulted in increased flexibility, understanding, and a certain level of compassion for the struggles their staff faces. Many businesses tried to remain in constant communication with their employees, alerting them of important updates as they happened. They gave employees the tools they needed to work remotely and many offered expanded mental health services to help workers cope with the sudden and drastic changes. 

But many employees are still feeling the strain. More than 50% of senior-level women report feeling exhausted by their workload this year. Parents are facing high levels of burnout and exhaustion. There’s also the issue of financial anxiety. Women were more likely to be laid off due to the pandemic, and millions more are still concerned about the stability of their job and finances. Companies have stepped up to attempt to support their employees, but their efforts currently don’t address the core problems that lead to exhaustion and burnout. 

The Consequences of Losing Women Leaders

Working mothers are more likely than their childless counterparts to consider leaving the workforce entirely. One in three mothers reported that the challenges of 2020 have made them consider leaving work to manage their family responsibilities full-time. The financial consequences of this will be significant. Research continues to show that gender diversity in leadership has a direct impact on profits. Having women in senior-level positions also has a noticeable impact on creating a more diverse and inclusive company culture, as they’re more likely to mentor more women. 

Working mothers returning home in large numbers in 2020 could therefore continue to impact gender diversity in business for decades to come. So, the question remains: what can businesses do to prevent it? 

What Now? Actionable Tips for Corporate Leaders

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So, the situation isn’t great. The pandemic has increased stressors and ripped away foundations that working women have relied on for decades to manage their responsibilities. Remote work can hinder collaboration and communication, and parents frequently have to manage childcare in addition to working from home. Black employees are not only disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but they’re also dealing with the constant emotional stress of continued and repeated racial violence. Working mothers, especially Black mothers, are considering leaving the workforce en masse. Years of work towards gender diversity and hang in the balance. 

The only thing left to address is what we can actually do about it. Here’re a few thoughts:  

Step #1: Get Realistic with Goals

At the start of 2020, we all had big ideas and big plans. For most of us, they didn’t end up panning out. It’s time to get realistic with your staff. Are certain goals and performance standards still feasible in our new normal? Adjust expectations for the new challenges that employees are facing. Consider offering “pandemic days” to give employees a chance to address their responsibilities outside of work, like helping their children with remote learning or caring for family members. 

Step #2: Set Boundaries

Supporting women in the workforce right now means establishing clear boundaries between “work” and “home” in a time where the two are becoming blurred. Set specific time blocks for meetings and time blocks for uninterrupted work. Have clear policies in place for communication during and outside of working hours so that employees aren’t stressing about emails after-hours. Focus on the importance of results, not necessarily the amount of hours worked. 

Step #3: Promote and Hire Women

If companies don’t want their progress towards gender parity to be erased, they need to adopt actionable diversity and inclusion initiatives that will put more women on the path towards leadership. Diversity goals are nothing without action behind them. Creating realistic goals and boundaries will ultimately help companies support the entirety of their staff, but businesses should take special care not to let gender diversity fall by the wayside. 


The best way to keep corporate gender diversity from taking a hit is awareness, but this also requires action. Business leaders must consider better planning of including women in the workforce when recruiting, hiring, and promoting, and provide support and flexibility for the working moms within organizations. 2020 seems to be one crisis after another, but an increased lack of diversity is one we can avoid if businesses take action now. 

Resources for D&I 

Joonko has all the resources you need to improve your organization’s recruitment and hiring processes. Check out our resource library or get in touch to learn more about our talent pool of highly qualified underrepresented candidates.

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