Why one in four women are considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce.

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Have opportunities for women gone backwards as a result of the pandemic?

For the past 6 years, McKinsey have been researching and publishing great work on ‘Women in the workplace’. This year’s report, developed in partnership with LeanIn, focuses on how women have been impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the research was conducted from the US, we believe there are lessons to be learned in EMEA and globally in what they found. Before 2020, we were seeing progress. Sadly, the most recent report tells us that the pandemic has disproportionately and negatively affected women, and in particular women of colour. Other recent reports, like Cranfield’s ‘Female FTSE Board Report 2020’ shows some progress for women ‘at the top’, but it is so small and slow it will take decades to ‘trickle down’. The World Economic Forum (2018) predicts that if current rates were to be maintained in the future, the overall global gender gap will close in 61 years in Western Europe, 74 years in LATAM and the Caribbean, 124 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and a whopping 165 years in North America!

During my tenure as Head of D&I for a large global investment bank, we had good intentions but did much the same as all the other global organisations; set up networks, ran development programmes and set up mentoring schemes. Although there was improvement, it didn’t ‘shift the needle’ enough. Whilst on the board of Opportunity Now, we worked tirelessly to get more women on company boards and whilst great progress was made, it didn’t really address the issues of pipeline. A senior women’s network I was involved with in the UK ran fabulous programmes which helped individuals, but they didn’t make change at the level needed to bring about widescale transformation. 

We have all heard the positive statements and drive to create great opportunities for women in organisations. We know from neuroscience that differences between men and women in terms of pay, performance and behaviour are more a result of stereotyping and expectations than of biology. Experts have been clear what organisations need to do in terms of shared parental leave, flexible working, unconscious bias training and fair recruitment. Whilst it’s much less common nowadays to see instances of deliberate sexism or a desire to ‘keep women down’ in organisations, they are still bastions of male privilege. There is often a lack of sponsors and mentors (which research shows does help women at all levels) and that women are not ‘sought out’ by employers in recruitment and talent selection situations (though there is significant evidence that this is changing, through legislation, training in unconscious bias, internal programmes and social media).

As mentioned, by early 2020 we could see progress, especially in SVP level and above. At the start of 2020 there had been a 5-year improvement in women on boards and senior levels (SVPs went from 23%-28%, and C-Suite from 17% – 21%) though women of colour were still massively underrepresented.  For every 100 men promoted only 85 women were. The gap is even bigger for specific groups of women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted for every 100 men.  There is still a ‘broken rung’ where women do not get their entry level promotion as quickly as men.

Between 2015 and 2020, we made slow but steady progress in women’s representation. But a “broken rung” at the first step up to manager continues to hold women back—and now the Covid-19 crisis is threatening to erase the gains of the past six years.

women in the workplace, 2020, McKinsey & Lean in

According to McKinsey, the positive progress could be reversed by the pandemic. Shockingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, they report that 1 in 4 women are thinking about ‘stepping back or stepping out’. In McKinsey’s previous reports, the question of attrition had not been radically different before (data showing it was fairly equal between men and women). Due to coronavirus, the boundaries between work, home and family have blurred, at a time when very few are untouched by financial and personal worries. When many of us have had a moment to reflect, existential cries of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What’s important to me?’ reverberate. All whilst juggling our day-to-day commitments like work, childcare, home, finances, health and fitness. It’s no surprise women are burning out. 

If these women do leave their roles, it will leave a vacuum of female leadership in the future and result in companies missing out on the experience and perspective these women bring. The effects could be exponential as women stop seeing as many female role models and sponsors in their organisations.

The report identified 3 communities particularly at risk of leaving the workplace:


Even prior to Covid-19, among heterosexual married partners, women were statistically more likely to take on the majority of childcare and housework. This was the case even when both partners were working full-time. Many women worked a ‘second shift’ when they returned home from work, bearing the primary responsibility for childcare and keeping the household in order. The impact of school closures and lack of childcare has led these women to need to ‘work both shifts’ simultaneously, compounding this impact even further. Many women worry about their work performance being judged negatively.

“There were times when I said to my husband, ‘One of us is going to have to quit our job.’ And I remember thinking, ‘How come I’m the only one thinking about this, and my husband isn’t?’ I don’t think him leaving was ever in question.”


Senior women

Senior women are reporting the effects of intense work pressure and relentless work schedules causing stress and cognitive overload. Many of these women have overcome several barriers to get to their positions and they are typically held to higher performance standards and judged more harshly, particularly in difficult economic times. 63% of senior women also have full-time working partners compared with just 35% of men.

“The greatest challenge has been the ability to disconnect from work. I get out of bed and go straight to my office, which is 20 steps away. And it’s very easy to get in early and stay late because there’s more than enough work to be done.”


Black women

Black women have always been under-represented in organisations, though this year has brought to the fore additional pressure against the backdrop of racial injustice and violence. Even the additional concern that the virus itself affects members of the BAME community disproportionately. Black women are more likely to need to ‘act white’ to progress in predominantly white workplaces and less able to bring their authentic selves to work, even natural Black hair has been spoken about as ‘unprofessional’ in corporate environments. Feeling excluded, lacking support, and feeling unable to bring your whole self to work can accelerate burnout. There is a need to remove or dramatically adapt systems that currently exacerbate inequity. We need to foster greater inclusion and re-establish trust. McKinsey found that only 25% of Black women felt they were supported and that 50% felt they were ‘an only’, that they had to represent all Black women as the only Black woman in the room.

“It took too long for me to get to my current role, given the contributions I’ve made. Others got to the same position with fewer achievements and in less time. I think there was a lack of willingness by others to sponsor me, to advocate for me, to acknowledge my skill set. While I’ve had great opportunities, they were not equal to the opportunities offered to other employees.”


Research on ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ from the field of neuroscience and psychology would suggest that feeling like ‘an only’ is more likely to make you feel like part of the ‘out-group’. When we feel excluded we are more likely to withdraw and have difficulty accessing our pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s super computer that deals with all executive functions of the brain like thinking, memorising, strategising, and decision making).

What we need is fundamental change in the way organisations are structured and run, and an overhaul of the support structure at all levels.

[Companies are] at a crossroads. The choices that companies make today will have consequences both for their organizations and society for decades to come.

Women in the workplace, 2020, Mckinsey & Lean in

We are at a pivotal point in time. Now is the time to take action.

The report shares several conclusions and proposes solutions which you can investigate further if of interest. Our conclusions for both companies and individuals are below:

Conclusions for company leadership and HR:

  1. Look for your ‘Inclusion gap’ and set up a task force of influential people across business and level
  2. Train everyone in Unconscious Bias, everyone has it and unless we are aware of it and mitigate it, it will impact our decisions in the workplace.
  3. Set the clear expectation that gender, racial or any other form of discrimination will not be tolerated, and mean it (have consequences!)
  4. Review your marketing and communications, make sure you are showing and talking about female leaders
  5. Create transparency in recruitment and promotion decisions, review your job advertisements
  6. Run specific programmes for women to build resilience and awareness of gender stereotypes
  7. Set up role modelling and sponsorship programmes for women at all levels, including specific support for Black women and underrepresented groups.

Conclusions for individuals

  1. Focus on what is important to you at this time and prioritise what matters.
  2. Join networks to share strategies to cope, and seek out positive role models who you can relate to
  3. Focus on your goals for your career, even if your timeline needs to adapt this year Take time out and allow your unconscious brain to do the work.
  4. Take care of yourself mentally and physically – mindfulness, yoga, whatever works for you. Take breaks even when it feels impossible and make sure you get enough sleep.
  5. If you are in a position of power or privilege, actively share this with others who aren’t. Speak up in meetings when you see someone being talked over or ignored, or if you hear of someone being disregarded for a position. Reach out to colleagues who may be struggling during this time and make connections across your network.

For women who are thinking of stepping out or back. This year has brought so many challenges, sometimes the only way to physically cope with commitments outside of work is to reduce your hours, step down in seniority or leave your role. If that’s the case, it’s completely understandable and nothing to be ashamed of. Just make sure the decision is truly yours.

Speak to your organisation and see what support is available. Don’t be too hard on yourself, women are often expected to be better than men to do the same job – but you don’t have to be on top form all the time. Everyone is human. If possible, share the burden of planning and care for children, parents, vulnerable relatives, and any others. You’re not alone.

If you feel you need additional support, consider joining one of our training courses or free events to help build your resilience and strengthen your network. FeForte is for all women from all backgrounds, with different perspectives and concerns, and we support you to find balance, confidence and to grow your network. We teach key habits for resilience backed by science and philosophy. We are a safe place to share and find support.

FeForte: Building female resilience through Science and Philosophy.

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