Among the many negative consequences COVID-19 has had on society at large and the workplace, in particular, women of color are getting hit the hardest. They’re under stress, losing their jobs, and even leaving voluntarily to care for loved ones as the demands of family life take their toll or due to the stresses they’ve been enduring during an unprecedented year.
According to a study titled Women in the Workplace by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, a full quarter of women today are thinking about putting their careers on hold—or leaving their jobs outright—because of burnout. We’re seeing more people of color and women under strain in the past year, the report says.
“The pandemic has … intensified challenges that women already face in the workplace,” the study says. “Working mothers have always worked a ‘double shift’—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this even possible for women—including school and childcare—have been upended.”
Challenges created by the pandemic have forced upwards of 2 million women to at least think about taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether. “This is the first time we’ve seen signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men,” the McKinsey report notes.
What’s more, the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Latina women, who tend to be the sole breadwinners for their families. According to the McKinsey study, “They are doing more at home, too. Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than White mothers to be responsible for all childcare and housework, and Black mothers are twice as likely to be handling all of this for their families,” the study says.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2021, 973,000 “fewer Black women were employed than in February 2020, a decrease of 9.5% since the COVID-19 pandemic began.” The Bureau also points out that “losses in local and state government and leisure and hospitality have disproportionate impacts on Black women’s employment. Black women are nearly one in four public sector workers and one in eight leisure and hospitality workers. Half a million Black women have left the labor market since January 2020.”
A wake-up call
This should be a wake-up call for employers everywhere. “No economic recovery can be complete if some communities are left behind,” says Janelle Jones, chief economist with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Indeed, the fallout from the type of attrition we’re seeing is severe—women who can’t support their families potentially fall below the poverty line, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk. And companies are losing talent at a massive rate. “Corporate America is at a crossroads. The choices that companies make today will have consequences both for their organizations and society for decades to come,” the McKinsey/LeanIn report says.
Companies, by and large, are not responding appropriately to employee needs. “Less than a third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic,” McKinsey says, “and only about half have updated employees on their plans for performance reviews or their productivity expectations during COVID-19.”
Translation: A considerable proportion of employees—especially those who are also parents and caregivers—"are facing the choice between falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic, or pushing themselves to keep up an unsustainable pace."
Bias and the pandemic
It's not only COVID-19 that has had a negative effect on women of color in the workplace. Before the crisis, many had felt stress due to biases toward not only gender but race. By and large, women of color clearly “face a wider range of microaggressions, from having their judgment questioned to hearing demeaning remarks about themselves or people like them,” McKinsey says. What’s more, about half of Black women are typically the only person representing their race. These women “are especially likely to feel scrutinized, under increased pressure to perform, and as if their actions reflect positively or negatively on people like them,” the report says.
This, on top of women of color being less likely to be promoted or advance in the workplace than their White colleagues. “They are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to say their manager advocates for new opportunities for them,” the McKinsey report says. “And they have fewer interactions with senior leaders, which means they often don’t get the sponsorship and advocacy they need to advance.”
Racial disparity has long been an issue in the workplace, but recent events have exacerbated the situation. Black and Latina women “are more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to McKinsey. “And incidents of racial violence across the U.S. are exacting a heavy emotional toll.”
The Labor Department’s Jones says it’s beyond time to level the playing field. “Centering relief and recovery policies around the needs of Black women and other vulnerable workers will ensure an inclusive economy for everyone,” she says. “This will mean involving those communities in identifying needs, policy development, solutions, and action. It means addressing the long-standing history of racial discrimination across our economy—in pay, education, health care, housing, and wealth-building—and ensuring everyone can access the resources and opportunities they need to thrive.”
Companies can start stemming the flow of women of color from the workplace by understanding their own microaggressions and biases. A science-based approach in which people comprehend their own prejudices and embrace greater diversity is a huge step toward inclusiveness and equality.
Learn more about how BiasSync can help your company recognize—and mitigate—bias in the workplace.
Not just diversity. Inclusion.
Diversity is not just about numbers. It’s about people’s experiences in the workplace. If you’re ready to understand how bias impacts your company—with data to make effective changes, contact us now.