A shift in corporate culture: 54 percent of working women cite feeling constant exhaustion

Ahead of the Image Business Summit, in partnership with PwC, Jillian Bolger takes a closer look at the position of women in the workplace, right now.

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit, taking place Nov 18 & 19, for more insights into the shape of things to come from speakers such as Anne O'Leary, CEO of Vodafone; Gina Miller, entrepreneur and activist; Dr Anita Sands, Board Director, speaker, author, former Fulbright Scholar; and David McWilliams, Irish economist, writer and journalist. 


A detailed new study by McKinsey has highlighted stark changes for women in business this year. The Women in the Workplace study, now in its sixth year, suggests that the pandemic has had a particularly negative effect on working women, threatening to reverse five years of progress.

The significant study, conducted in conjunction with LeanIn.Org (a not-for-profit organisation that strives to create an equal world while helping empower women to achieve their ambitions), tracked the progress of women in corporate America using data from 317 participant companies and responses from more than 40,000 working men and women. The workplace looks very different to when last year’s study was conducted, and it’s no surprise to learn that Covid-19 has radically altered the playing field.

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Progress toward gender parity doesn’t just remain slow; the pandemic has meant that one of every four women – especially mothers – in senior-level positions are now confronting difficult career choices and considering cutting back on their job responsibilities.

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While almost half of the companies surveyed are providing greater support to their employees – through initiatives like parenting and home-schooling benefits and mental-health counselling – they are failing to address the likely causes of stress and burnout. 28 percent have increased financial support, but the pandemic has forced parents to juggle their careers with childcare, homeschooling and housework and the data confirms that it’s mothers who often end up dealing with the majority of those responsibilities.

Forty percent of mothers (and 27 percent of fathers) spend at least three hours a day more than they did pre-Covid-19 on household responsibilities, with single mothers managing these additional tasks alone. Mothers are twice as likely as fathers to worry that their parental responsibilities will result in negative judgments of their work performance.

Over 2 million successful women are now considering reducing their work hours, or leaving the workforce altogether

The Women in the Workplace study suggests that over 2 million successful women are now considering reducing their work hours, moving to a part-time role, switching to a less-demanding job, taking a leave of absence, or leaving the workforce altogether. If these women leave, it doesn’t just impact negatively on recent advances in gender equity, it also means that fewer women will be in leadership positions or on track to become leaders.

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Of course, this trend isn’t just bad for gender diversity. A growing number of studies have identified the overwhelmingly positive effects of employing a gender diverse workforce. Companies with more diverse management teams tend to show greater innovation and productivity and higher financial performance. Senior-level women tend to have a more meaningful impact on a company’s culture, and are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies, champion racial and gender diversity and mentor other women. If women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies.

For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted, with this number even lower for Latinas and Black women.

Even before the pandemic, women in senior-level jobs felt the need to work harder and longer than their male counterparts. Not only are women burning out at a higher rate, but 54 percent cite feeling constant exhaustion. The McKinsey research shows that Black women find it even harder than others to maintain a career, facing systemic barriers to advancement including reduced levels of managerial support, a lack of allies and more acute discrimination.

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And despite a growth in the numbers of women in corporate leadership roles, the ‘broken rung’, which has held millions of women back from being promoted, still exists as a major barrier to career advancement. This finding remains unchanged for the sixth year in a row. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted, with this number even lower for Latinas and Black women.

The warning signs are here, and if companies want to avoid losing female employees to burnout, stress, lack of advancement and financial anxiety, then they need to implement policy changes for a more equitable and flexible workplace.

Good news

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The pandemic has prompted companies to rethink the location-centric work culture, with 93 percent of companies agreeing that more jobs can be performed remotely. Almost 70 percent predict that a significant share of their employees will work remotely a year from now. Employees see the benefits of remote work, too, with almost eight out of ten revealing that they want to continue to work from home more often than they did before Covid-19.

Companies say that the crisis has created a feeling of solidarity and fostered empathy and understanding among employees, resulting in a happier and more optimistic workforce.

This could mark like the beginning of a shift in corporate culture, and one that has far-reaching implications. Remote working may allow companies to cast their recruitment nets further afield, drawing from larger and more diverse talent pools. Remote work can bring new opportunities for current employees too, especially parents, caregivers, older employees, and people with disabilities. Remote working must, however, respect boundaries and the balance between work and home life.

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The focus on mental health suggests a shift in the corporate mindset towards a more empathetic workplace too, companies say that the crisis has created a feeling of solidarity and fostered empathy and understanding among employees, resulting in a happier and more optimistic workforce.

So, despite the drawbacks, Covid-!9 has presented the corporate world with an opportunity to map out a new future that ensures that women are nurtured, valued and given the opportunities to continue their way up the corporate ladder in greater numbers.

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