The Pandemic’s Toll on Women’s Careers

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The McKinsey & Lean executive talks about their new comprehensive study, and what it says about the demands of many women over the past year and a half

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Larina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey who previously served as the firm’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, and Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In, split with the Journal about some of the takeaways from this year’s report. talked to. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

‘Women kept’
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Businesshala: The report finds that women did not leave corporate employees in large numbers last year, contrary to what so many had expected and experienced during the pandemic. What happened?

M / s. Yi: Simply put, the women stayed.

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MS Thomas: The numbers remain the same, but women’s experiences seem to be getting worse or simply continue to take their toll as women burn more than in the past year. I really think about what’s going on. Because the reality is that many of us can’t afford to quit our jobs. There’s more movement now, but most of the movement we’re seeing isn’t leaving the workforce – it’s companies moving people.

Businesshala: The report surveyed hundreds of companies, but do women in other occupations have different experiences or are leaving the workforce altogether?

M / s. Yi: Absolutely. It focuses on the corporate sector and corporate workers; This is not a full-economy approach. So if you look at our National Bureau of Labor Statistics, they don’t match. We have seen high unemployment figures for women, especially in wage and frontline roles, in retail, in food services, in healthcare. It is looking at a specific slice of corporate white-collar workers, managers and senior leaders. Companies have a decision as to whether they lean forward to support and retain and pursue women – or see what happens and risk losing them.

Businesshala: Does the data suggest that some women are now disillusioned with the realities of the corporate world, and less interested in climbing the corporate ladder?

M / s. Thomas: One or two things are happening. Employees are saying, “I want more from my employer. I just expect more. I want a different culture. I want an investment in employee well-being and inclusion that exceeds what I see.” Another driver is that we as a culture have gone through a lot. Many women I know are saying, “Hey, is this job worthwhile for me? What do I want to do for myself?”

M / s. Yi: The level of ambition of women has not decreased, but they are working hard and they are largely unfamiliar with it. What the data shows is that it makes you feel like you’re doing a lot of unpaid work, quite frankly. If you imagine yourself as a female executive, you may be thinking, “I’m overworked, I’m unrecognizable, I have no time to recover. Is this the most of my time? Have a good ROI?”

Who sets the boundaries?

Businesshala: What should companies do differently so that women are not tempted to leave?

M / s. Thomas: If you feel like you have more flexibility, you are less likely to get burned. You are less likely to think about leaving your company. But we are seeing that employees feel like they need to be on 24/7. The workload requirements are unforgivable. Right now, too much responsibility is being placed on employees to set their own boundaries, and make room for themselves. And I think we need to see a change where companies are taking more ownership to really explore those limits. This is going to take some real trial and error.

I will give you an example. What happens after hours when you get emails? We asked everyone in the team, what was the right criteria? I thought they were going to say, “No email after a certain time of day.” We surveyed everyone and we got input: They didn’t want to shut down completely. They wanted things to come at a regular pace throughout the day. But what we’ve set is one criterion: If you get an email hours later, you can ignore it. If someone on the team needs you to do something after a traditional workday, you’ll receive a text message. So, if there’s something they really need to act on, everyone will get a text.

Businesshala: Another theme of this year’s report is that as jobs change, women are more likely to want to work remotely than men. Will this have an impact on women’s careers later?

M / s. Thomas: I think we really need to be thoughtful about this: are we inadvertently creating two classes of employees? So employees who are in office get more access to senior leaders. They’ve got more water-cooler chatter. Their work is more likely to be recognized because they are in the office and they are front and center. And then we have another group of employees – who are disproportionately women – who don’t have that access.

M / s. Yi: In the data, 90% of men and women said they would one day [of work at home a week]. In a country where there really is no unanimity, everyone is saying [they want] At least some more flexibility. women are saying three days [of remote work] Sounds about right, and so they’re looking for more of that mix. And this is a moment where companies can go back to where they were, or they can really say: How do we redesign for hybrid and mixed environments where, at any given time, not everyone will be in the room? The silver lining: If your full-time, back-to-work date is 2022, it’s time to get this right for you.

talk vs action

Businesshala:The report also noted that there was still relatively little progress made for women of color, a surprise after so much focus on diversity and inclusion over the past year. What do you make of that?

M / s. Yi: We see higher awareness, but we are slow on results. When you match the American corporate commitment to racial equality, that’s $200 billion. So this is wonderful. But then you look at our research on the day-to-day experiences of Black women, Asian women, Latino women, women with disabilities, LGBTQ, every single group experiencing worse than white peers and white women. And the challenges we had before the pandemic are still with us: being talked about, your judgment being questioned.

M / s. Thomas: White employees, interestingly enough, are more likely this year to say that they are allies of women of color and see themselves as allies of women of color, but they are more likely to take action. So for me this is a very important distinction. When you have about 80% of white employees saying they see themselves as an ally, less than half are facing discrimination when they see it. Less than a quarter are advocating for new opportunities for women of color or mentoring and sponsoring women of color. That’s why we see this huge gap between intention and action when it comes to women of color.

Mr. Cutter is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in New York. He can be contacted at [email protected]

improvement and amplification

Larina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, is the firm’s former chief diversity and inclusion officer. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that he is the firm’s current Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. (Corrected September 27.)


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