World Reimagined

Women At Work: Employment Trends At Risk Due To Pandemic

Professional woman at an office
Credit: Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic has more than doubled the nation’s unemployment rate, but its impact on women in the workplace could be especially devastating.

new report from McKinsey & Company and Lean In found that one in four women – as many as 2 million – are considering leaving their job or stepping away from their careers due to the coronavirus emergency. And that could disrupt the movement toward gender equality in short order.

“It’s really stark,” says Rachel Thomas, CEO and co-founder of Lean In. “We all know women are struggling to balance work with everything else, but I think this study really points to the scale of the problems...We really can wipe out all the hard-earned progress we’ve seen from women in management in a single year.”

Both working mothers and women in senior level positions are at risk, with burnout as the biggest danger. Mothers are handling more child care and housework than ever before on top of their corporate responsibilities and women without children feel even more pressure to work harder than men.

“At the beginning of the year, we were celebrating the fact that women were more 50% of the work force for the first time in over a decade,” says C. Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The last time women were a majority in the workforce was 2008 during the last recession...The pandemic has all but wiped out all of those gains.”

Working mothers have always faced the “Motherhood Penalty” – an assumption that they were less committed and less productive than people without children. But with support systems like school and childcare no longer available, it’s even worse.

“You can only imagine how pervasive it is when there are kids in the background on Zoom and interrupting meetings as our lives are front and center,” says Thomas. “On Zoom the motherhood penalty is more pronounced than ever before...There is a huge group of women who are thinking about downshifting or leaving because they don’t feel they have another option.”

African American women are at particular risk. The report finds that women of color are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis.

That problem is compounded by the fact that even companies with the best of intentions in their equality programs tend to focus on either women as a whole or race/ethnicity as a whole. Very few look at the intersection of gender and ethnicity, which effectively means they don’t know – even in the best of times – how women of color are doing at their organization.

Beyond the impact on gender parity, a mass exodus of women from the workplace could also have severe fiscal effects, the report notes. Women earn roughly $185 billion per year which is cycled into their local economy. Retraining costs will be substantial for corporations. And companies that have women in senior leadership positions frequently have better financial results and more employee-friendly cultures, according to Lean In data.

For women who do step back, even temporarily, the long-term financial consequences are significant as well. A woman who exits the workforce for just one year loses about 15% of her earning power, says Mason.

The news isn’t all bad. Despite the pandemic, many companies are taking steps to keep their gender diversity efforts moving forward. (Today, 87% of companies are committed to gender diversity, compared to 56% in 2012, when McKinsey conducted the first study on the state of women at work.) It’s just as critical, though, to preemptively address burnout.

“As women start to try to reenter the workforce, it’s what employers do right now that will make the difference for those women,” says Mason. “So, workplace flexibility, paid sick leave, better wages, childcare subsidies and supports – those things will make the difference right now in the lives of working women. And those are things that employers, small and large, can do to help women in this moment.”

The pandemic is also resulting in more widespread work-from-home policies, which are sowing the seeds of a more empathic workforce. More companies are also committing to spend more on mental health and employee well-being.

“It really is a panic button moment,” says Thomas, “but I think it’s important for organizations to realize that if they can step up and help women at this critical moment, there are some bright spots on the other end of this.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and

Read Chris' Bio