This year, we’ve watched entire industries falter, intensifying the inequalities that have lurked just beneath the surface of our economy for so long. Even back in May we knew: the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color. COVID-19 has hit women hard as well, exacerbating gender gaps in workplace experiences. New data shows that employers are failing to address the problem—whether that’s down to a lack of awareness or a “not our problem” mentality, companies are missing an opportunity to support employees and strengthen their organizations.
Before COVID-19, I’d often pause to think about my role as a woman—and the leader of a technology company. Small interactions sent me on a winding train of thought:
“How do people perceive me? What is my behavior modeling for other women? How can I break down barriers for my colleagues?”
Like many professional women, regardless of seniority or line of work, I’m constantly trying to negotiate the different workplace expectations and experiences of men and women.
COVID-19 has deepened those differences.
Data maps a crisis of corporate culture
In early March, Limeade launched the 2020 Employee Care Report. We surveyed 1,000 employees on burnout, well-being, and perceptions of employee care. Employers came up short on care. Burnout levels were high and mental well-being was suffering. Considering the pandemic’s profound impact on society, we had to look again. The results were alarming but not unexpected: Not only are managers carrying the weight of their team’s well-being, but male and female managers are living wildly different remote work experiences.
Female managers reported lower levels of job security and well-being than their male counterparts. While 60% of male managers said they felt “extremely comfortable” asking their employer for a day off to benefit their well-being, just 25% of female managers said the same.
I empathize with these women. They’re feeling the weight of perception, the expectation that the roles we play beyond work should not impact work, especially if we want to advance. No one can know we’re overwhelmed, so how can we frivolously take time off?
This pressure is not new, but its amplification is damaging. Our research found that only 11% of women reported “extremely positive” well-being during the pandemic in contrast to 42% of men. In the context of this gap, it’s tough to ignore household labor.
According to a recent McKinsey and Company report, more than 70% of fathers think they’re splitting household labor equally with their partner during COVID-19 compared to only 44% of mothers. Some women are choosing to leave the workforce entirely, suggesting the privilege of financial stability or the lack of any other alternatives.
But it’s bigger than household labor. Women aren’t feeling support from their employers. We uncovered that one-third of female managers said they have feared losing their job during the pandemic while just 26% of male managers felt the same. And only 73% of women feel equipped to support the emotional needs of their team compared to 94% of men.
I believe these statistics have less to do with women feeling incapable and more to do with an awareness that they’re not getting the tools and support they need to help others. They’re telling us something about what it means to authentically support employees so the entire organization can succeed.
Though caregivers are facing impossible challenges as we split our attention between additional childcare duties and reaching goals at work, women are sounding the alarm in part because we’ve been walking this tightrope for so long. You’re seeing our exhaustion reflected in the data, and the implications should worry employers. No one, regardless of gender, can keep this up indefinitely.
Employers need to understand that supporting all employees means listening to the women in crisis across their organizations. Their experience as managers—and across seniority levels, for that matter—is an organizational concern that we can’t wait to act on. Employee retention depends on it. Engagement and well-being depend on it. Getting more women in leadership roles five to 10 years from now depends on it.
Managing an urgent need for change
Addressing these concerns starts with how we manage our managers. We already know that managers tend to think they’re good at listening, empathizing, and supporting people when they’re really just talking shop. Companies should invest in improving one-on-one meetings as well as train managers to look for signs of burnout or disengagement so they know how to use the available resources when they see it. This training should have at its core a focus on improving the emotional intelligence of managers, but also what to do when they do spot the signs of burnout.
Of course, training alone won’t change the culture—so it needs to become a norm that managers care about employees as human beings. Create clear manager competencies and accountability that this is part of the manager’s job in your organization.
Companies should also empower managers to be vulnerable with employees—to empathize with their struggles and to be open to ways that the team and the company can improve. They also should learn to be role models regarding how they handle stress. If teams see their leader taking a mental health day, blocking time to help their kids with remote school, or simply admitting that they’re exhausted, employees will follow.
This is even harder to do while many of us are online but by making the time to connect at the beginning or end of a meeting, reaching out for more informal meetings, or calling or texting your employees, they can start to feel more connected with their managers as human beings, too. And maybe most importantly, tell managers to trust their people to do what’s right for the company. Help them set clear success metrics (like OKRs that clarify specific goals and measurable results for their roles) so the focus is on impact over hours.
Everyone’s struggling right now, and after this is “over,” we’ll look for employers that prioritize honesty and openness over composure at any cost. Managers are the key to that cultural change.
We can learn from this crisis—and the compounded challenges professional women face. We’re hearing that our workplaces can be more human. It’s a message that women are delivering loud and clear through their perceptions of employer care. They’re here to tell us that this problem is urgent.
For the good of all, we need to listen.
Laura Hamill, PhD is an organizational psychologist and the chief people officer and chief science officer at Limeade.