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The ‘third shift’ matters—and women do more of it

A senior partner at McKinsey & Co. observes that many women are working a triple shift. One is in the home, where women still tend to do the lion’s share. Then there is their job. And third, there are the extra responsibilities many have assumed in the workplace.

The ‘third shift’ matters—and women do more of it
[Source images: claudiodivizia/iStock; HannamariaH/iStock]

With schools bustling with students, football stadiums crammed, and businesses back to work, there is an emerging normality in the United States, even amidst continuing concerns about COVID-19. The sense that the worst of a terrible time has passed has also prompted many people to reassess their lives.

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That is certainly the case for the 65,000 people surveyed by McKinsey and LeanIn.org. The results show that COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on everyone, but a little more for women. For example, in the U.S., women’s labor force participation rate has declined 2.5 percentage points since February 2020 compared to 1.7 points for men.

For working women, the past 18 months have been a test of resilience. Many are working a triple shift. One is in the home, where women still tend to do the lion’s share. Then there is their job. And third, there are the extra responsibilities many have assumed in the workplace.

Specifically, our survey of corporate workers found that women are far more likely than their male peers to invest in the success of other co-workers. The data shows that women leaders are:

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  • 17% more likely than men to ensure workloads are manageable
  • 21% more to help navigate work/life challenges
  • 31% more to take actions on burnout
  • 63% more likely to provide emotional support

Among senior leaders, women are twice as likely to spend substantial time on diversity efforts. These kinds of actions are sometimes referred to as “office housework.” There is a whiff of derision to the term, but for that reason, it is perfectly apt. Like at-home housework, it is unpaid, under-estimated, unglamorous—and essential. Almost nine in 10 companies, for example, said it was “very or extremely” critical that managers support employee wellbeing; only a quarter, however, did much to recognize it.

It is not at all surprising, then, that women are experiencing higher burnout rates: the triple shift is taking a toll.  Forty-two percent of women surveyed said they were feeling burnt out, much higher than the previous year (32%) and more than men (35%).  Four in 10 women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs—and high employee turnover in recent months suggests that many are following through.

Despite these challenges, women remain ambitious: about one in three surveyed aspires to top leadership, a figure that has held steady. And to some extent, they are succeeding: representation of women has risen slightly throughout the management pipeline since 2016.

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Ambition and fatigue, push and pull

For many corporate women, this is a moment of great reflection, and of restlessness. They want to do more than slog through another day—and they can. They have choices: find another job, start a company, change their career track or even leave the workforce. In all these cases, companies risk losing talent. A piece of advice: don’t wait for the pandemic to be over—that will be too late—before figuring out how to retain and promote women.

This isn’t about creating new women-oriented programs or adding another virtual cocktail hour.  This is about looking at the workplace; recognizing what women bring to it; and then acting on that basis. A 2019 analysis in the Harvard Business Review found that women ranked slightly higher, compared to men, in 12 out of 16 leadership competencies, including collaboration, driving results, and self-development. Encouragingly, it also found that they were perceived as being just as effective. Still, the research shows that women remain systematically under-appreciated.

Antidotes to burnout

Leaders can change that—and it is in their interest to do so. Employees who feel supported are 28% less burned out, and 32% less likely to consider leaving. At a time of record job openings—more than 15 million Americans have left their work since April—there is no bigger competitive edge than building positive workplace morale—something that the survey shows women do more consistently than men.

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Leaders who want to do better can start by interrupting the reflection, and turning it into a conversation. Ask women—indeed, ask everyone—where the problems are, and how to solve them. Be practical. People value action over words—providing wellness resources, for example, rather than talking about the importance of mental health. Ensure that men start taking an equal load when it comes to office housework, and formally consider these efforts when it comes to pay and promotions.  Finally, simply saying thank you (not via email) and showing people that you appreciate their work can go a long way.

Yes, this is a moment of reflection. But for corporate America, it’s a moment of truth. Leaders can lurch from a health crisis to a talent crisis. Or they can take preventive measures that show they value their people–and what women are doing in the third shift, in particular. Indeed, by making their workplaces better for women, leaders will make them better for everyone.


Lareina Yee is a senior partner in McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office.

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