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Coronavirus pandemic continues to stunt women's careers, study finds

The annual Women in the Workplace report demonstrates what a blow the pandemic has been to working women.

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The pandemic hasn't been easy for anyone, including working moms.

Getty Images

More than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, women continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 on their careers. 

In the annual Women in the Workplace report from consultancy McKinsey & Company and women's advocacy nonprofit Lean In, data shows that even more women are struggling with their careers than last year. Forty-two percent of women said they felt burned out "often or almost always," up from 32% in 2020. This stands in contrast to 35% of men, up from 28% last year. 

About one in three women are thinking about either leaving the workforce or scaling back in their career, up from one in four last year. 

The report also found that women in leadership roles are stepping up in areas like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and support for employee well being, but aren't being noticed for it. 

"Their efforts are driving better outcomes for all employees -- but they are not getting the recognition they deserve," the report said. 

Employees surveyed said that female managers spend more time than male managers on making sure employees' workloads are manageable, helping them navigate work-life challenges and providing emotional support. 

"Companies cannot afford to miss the signals of talent attrition. It's time to invest in the leaders who have kept companies afloat throughout the challenges of the past two years," said Lareina Yee, senior partner at McKinsey.

The report follows last year's bleak warning that the pandemic was throttling women's careers and jeopardizing the previous six years of progress. Data from the US Census Bureau showed that at the start of 2021, 10 million mothers with school-aged children weren't actively working -- 1.4 million more than the previous year. According to the National Women's Law Center, women accounted for all the job losses in the US workforce in December 2020.

The data also comes as numerous articles in the last year and a half have discussed how the pandemic could affect women's careers, including how women tend to bear the brunt of family-related responsibilities and are getting burned out. 

To put together the study, McKinsey and Lean In surveyed 423 companies and more than 65,000 individuals. 

The study mentions other persistent problems for women. For one, women of color continue to experience microaggressions at the same rate as two years ago. Harvard Business Review defines microaggressions as "verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group." These are statements that may sound innocent but actually carry assumptions and stereotypes.

For example, 17% of Black and Asian women have been confused with someone else who shares their race or ethnicity, in comparison with 4% of white women. Along those lines, 18% of Black women, 13% of Hispanic women and 11% of Asian women have had co-workers express surprise over their language or other skills, in contrast to 5% of white women.  

"This year's report should serve as a wake-up call," said Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In. "Despite bold commitments to racial equity, the experiences of women of color aren't getting better."

Speaking to that push for DEI, 93% of companies committed last year to boosting focus on racial equity. Meanwhile 41% of  employees surveyed thought that actually happened, dipping lower to 35% for women of color employees. 

Companies are also still struggling to get women into leadership positions. In years past, the report has discussed the "broken rung," which is the idea that fewer women get promoted to their first managerial role, affecting the number of women in higher leadership positions. 

For every 100 men who get a first manager promotion, there are 89 white women and 85 women of color. Though the number of women of color in that statistic rose from 79 in 2019, the report said there still aren't enough women in middle management to promote into senior roles. 

"Across seven years of pipeline data, we see the same concerning trend in the corporate pipeline," the report said.

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