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Research: Women Leaders Took on Even More Invisible Work During the Pandemic

The new 2021 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that the mission-critical work of supporting employees’ well-being and promoting DEI is being done disproportionally by women, who aren’t being rewarded or recognized for it. Companies are reaping great rewards from these efforts, but compared to men in similar roles, women…

The new 2021 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that the mission-critical work of supporting employees’ well-being and promoting DEI is being done disproportionally by women, who aren’t being rewarded or recognized for it. Companies are reaping great rewards from these efforts, but compared to men in similar roles, women leaders are more likely to be exhausted and chronically stressed at work. Alarmingly, more than half of women leaders who manage teams say that over the last few months, they have felt burned out at work “often” or “almost always,” and almost 40% of them have considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. And only about a quarter of employees say that the extra work they’re doing is formally recognized (either “a great deal” or “a substantial amount.” With women leaders experiencing sky-high burnout and many of them eyeing the door, more needs to be done so that their efforts are treated like the indispensable work it is instead of like an after-hours, do-gooder volunteer drive.

The events of the last year and a half have put intense pressure on companies to do more to support employees and act on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Women leaders are meeting this moment and taking on the extra work that comes with it — but they’re not getting recognized or rewarded for it. As a result, this mission-critical work is in danger of being relegated to “office housework”: Necessary tasks and activities that benefit the company but go unrecognized, are underappreciated, and don’t lead to career advancement. That’s a main finding from the new 2021 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, which I co-authored.

The report on the state of women in corporate America surveyed more than 400 companies and more than 65,000 employees in professional jobs from the entry level to the C-suite. The survey found that at all levels of management, women showed up as better leaders, more consistently supporting employees and championing DEI. Compared to men in similar roles, women managers invest more in helping employees navigate work-life challenges, ensuring workloads are manageable, and providing emotional support. Women managers are also more likely to act as allies to women of color by speaking out against bias and advocating for opportunities for them. Finally, women leaders are also more likely than men to spend time on DEI work outside of their formal job responsibilities, such as leading or participating in employee resource groups (ERGs) and serving on DEI committees. Among women at the manager level and above, Black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are up to twice as likely as women overall to spend a substantial amount of time promoting DEI.

Companies are reaping great rewards from these efforts. The survey found that when leaders support employee well-being and demonstrate commitment to DEI, employees are happier with their jobs, more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving. And companies purport to value this work — an overwhelming majority of them say that managers’ efforts to promote employee well-being are critically important and that DEI is a key area of focus.

But this work is taxing the people who are disproportionately doing it. Compared to men in similar roles, women leaders are more likely to be exhausted and chronically stressed at work. Alarmingly, more than half of women leaders who manage teams say that over the last few months, they have felt burned out at work “often” or “almost always,” and almost 40% of them have considered downshifting their careers (for example, by moving to part-time work) or leaving the workforce altogether. What’s more is that this work is going unrecognized. Only about a quarter of employees say that the extra work they’re doing is formally recognized (for example, in performance reviews) either “a great deal” or “a substantial amount.”

This disconnect raises an important question: If companies think this work is so critical, why aren’t they recognizing and rewarding it?

Social science research has long documented how characteristics like gender and rac

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