One in four women are considering a career step-back because of Covid-19

A woman uses a laptop at a cafe in the Central Universal Department Store (TsUM) in Kiev, Ukraine May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017.
A woman uses a laptop at a cafe in the Central Universal Department Store (TsUM) in Kiev, Ukraine May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017.
Image: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko
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By now it’s well-established the Covid-19 crisis is hitting women particularly hard. Working mothers bear the brunt of the childcare responsibilities brought on by shuttered daycare centers and Zoom classrooms, while Black women are stricken with the added toll the pandemic has taken on their communities.

A new report quantifies the extent of the problem: One in four women are considering leaving their jobs, cutting back hours, or otherwise scaling back work as a result of the pandemic and its fallout.

The annual report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In surveyed more than 40,000 employees at 47 companies in the US and Canada.

“If there was a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” Rachel Thomas, CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit LeanIn.Org and a co-author of the report, tells Quartz. She notes that if women follow through on downshifting their careers, it would be a major setback for the progress that’s been made toward gender diversity in the years since the study began, including a 22% increase in the proportion of women in the C-suite since 2015.

Indeed, the report shows senior-level women are feeling particular strain at work, and are 1.5 times as likely as men to say that they’re thinking of scaling back because of Covid-19—largely because of burnout. In addition to the parenting responsibilities held by good number of women in high-level positions, the report notes that “[w]omen are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure—so when the stakes are high, as they are now, senior-level women could face higher criticism and harsher judgement.”

Unfortunately, the “motherhood penalty” faced by women at work is very real. Thomas and her report co-author Lareina Yee, a senior partner and chief officer of diversity and inclusion at McKinsey, say there’s a lot employers, managers, and colleagues can do to help alleviate some of that stress. Installing flexible work-hour policies is a major help, as is the simple gesture of showing support and understanding if a child makes a surprise guest appearance in the midst of a Zoom meeting. And managers should reassess performance and productivity expectations in light of the highly unusual circumstances in which many workers now find themselves.

Given the economic pressure many companies are facing, there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription as to how to accommodate working mothers. What’s important is that every company proactively take steps to accommodate workers who are overwhelmed and rightfully worried about the judgment they may face if they admit it. “What we need companies to do is experiment with different types of ways to rewrite play books,” says Yee. “Whatever they were doing before is not enough.”