1 in 4 Women Consider Leaving Workforce or ‘Downshifting’ due to Pandemic

1 in 4 Women Consider Leaving Workforce or ‘Downshifting’ due to Pandemic

Working mothers, Black women face unique challenges
A mother working remotely

The careers of many women may become yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research suggests.

A quarter of women are thinking about either leaving the workforce or “downshifting” their careers because of the coronavirus crisis, according to a new study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and working women’s advocacy group LeanIn.org. The research included a survey of 40,000 workers, as well as data from more than 300 companies.

Researchers defined leaving the workforce as either taking a leave of absence or quitting permanently. Downshifting, on the other hand, refers to either cutting back work hours — including switching to part-time status — or taking a less demanding job. While the options vary, women taking any of them would likely slow their career’s progression.

Pandemic sparks a host of worries

When asked about the biggest challenges they’ve faced during the pandemic, employees surveyed cited:

  • Anxiety over layoffs or furloughs
  • Burnout
  • Mental health
  • Child care and/or homeschooling responsibilities
  • Physical and/or mental health of loved ones
  • Financial insecurity

Some worries impact women more than men. For example, 24% of mothers feared that their work performance would be judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities, compared with 11% of fathers who felt that way.

Also, 29% of mothers were uncomfortable sharing their work-life challenges with colleagues, compared with 19% of fathers. Similarly, 13% of mothers were uncomfortable sharing that they were parents, compared with 5% of men.

An earlier, separate survey found that working mothers are more likely to feel unsupported by their employers during the pandemic, as compared with working fathers.

Mothers who were considering leaving the workforce or downshifting were most likely to cite child care responsibilities as their primary reason. In response to the pandemic:

  • 17% of mothers had considered reducing work hours
  • 16% had considered switching to a less demanding job
  • 15% had thought about taking a leave of absence
  • 8% had considered switching to a part-time role
  • 7% had mulled leaving the workforce completely

Women of color face unique concerns

The study also found that the pandemic has impacted some women more than others. An earlier report by LeanIn.org indicated that Black women face more challenges in the workplace than other groups.

According to this most recent study, Black women were more than twice as likely as women overall to report that a loved one’s death was a top challenge during the pandemic.

Likewise, 15% of Black women said they felt uncomfortable sharing their experience of grief and loss with co-workers, compared with 10% of all women and 6% of all men who felt that way.

Black women may be more worried about their health during the pandemic than other groups, as they were more likely than other employees to consider leaving the workforce due to health and safety fears since the pandemic began.

Also, 22% of Black women said they felt like they cannot talk about the impact current events are having on them and their loved ones, compared with 9% of all women and 7% of all men.

In addition to dealing with the weight of the pandemic, Black women have also felt the toll of racial violence in 2020. Among respondents, 42% of Black women said they feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts in the workplace about racial inequity, compared with 19% of all women and 14% of all men who felt that way.

Methodology: McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org surveyed more than 40,000 individual employees between May and August 2020. The report also included data and insights from 317 companies across the U.S. and Canada.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.