1 in 3 Women Are Considering Leaving the Workforce Or Changing Jobs — Here's Why

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As the pandemic stretches into its 18th month, the burnout that comes with a surge in coronavirus cases and uncertainty about returning to the office has pushed many employees to their limits. New data from Lean In and McKinsey & Company, however, shows that the gap between women and men who feel burned out has nearly doubled — and that disparity is driving more women to consider downshifting their career or leaving the workforce altogether. 

In its annual "Women in the Workplace" report, Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that 1 in 3 women have considered changing or leaving their jobs in the past year, compared with 1 in 4 women who were surveyed in 2020. While both men and women are reporting higher rates of burnout this year compared with last year, the gap between men and women who feel overwhelmed has nearly doubled: 42% of women and 35% of men say they are burned out, compared with 32% of women and 28% of men last year. 

"It's really concerning," Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Leanin.org, tells CNBC Make It. "Women are continuing to do a disproportionate amount of housework and child care throughout the pandemic compared to men, but on top of these obvious drivers of burnout, we see that women are taking on more work in the office around employee well-being, as well as advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, which means their workloads just going up and up and up." 

Women are doing more underrecognized, underpaid work than men

Between 2019 and 2020, the share of women in C-suite roles grew slightly, and more women of color were promoted to managerial roles. Despite these gains, women are still thwarted by the "broken rung," which is a woman's first promotion to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager in 2020, 89 white women and 85 women of color were promoted, compared with 89 white women and 79 women of color in 2019, according to Lean In and McKinsey & Company's newest data. 

While companies have signaled their commitment to DEI efforts amid increased calls for racial justice across the country, women leaders have shouldered DEI efforts more often than their male colleagues — but they are not getting formal recognition for this work. The Women in the Workplace report found that women leaders are more likely than men at the same level to champion DEI efforts outside of their normal job responsibilities: 1 in 5 women senior leaders spend a substantial amount of time on DEI work that is not central to their job, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 men senior leaders. 

The report notes that these efforts are at risk of becoming "the new office housework." While companies say they support DEI initiatives, most do not recognize this work in performance reviews and it usually isn't compensated. "It's mission critical to the organization, yet if it goes unrewarded and unrecognized, what happens?" Thomas says. "Not only are women not getting credit, and it's hindering their advancement in the workplace, but if you signal this work isn't important, it's less likely to get done."

This pattern has broader implications for companies beyond feeding burnout among working women, Jess Huang, a partner at McKinsey & Company and one of the report's authors, tells CNBC Make It. "Companies are really at risk of losing the leadership that's helped them weather the storm of the last few years," she says. "Many companies have performed well during the pandemic, and that's thanks to the women that have stepped up to do more to ensure their colleagues are working effectively and investing in DEI efforts." 

Between the ongoing caregiving crisis women face and overwhelming demands at work, many working women are reaching a breaking point, Huang adds. "They're doing more at home, they're doing more in the workplace, and they're really burned out," she says. "If companies don't address the unrecognized work that women are putting in that has a very real, positive impact on their performance and the broader burnout problem, they're going to lose the leaders that are making a huge difference for them at this critical moment." 

Women of color are still experiencing racism in the workplace

Despite a greater focus on DEI issues, the Women in the Workplace report found that women of color are still experiencing the same microaggressions about as often as they were pre-pandemic. Eighteen percent of Black women, 13% of Latinas and 11% of Asian women say they hear surprise at their language skills or other abilities at work, compared with just 5% of white women. 

There's also a disconnect between white employees pledging allyship to women of color at their job and taking action: 77% of white employees say they're allies to women of color, but only 39% say they confront discrimination when they see it and 21% regularly advocate for new opportunities for women of color, the report notes.

"We have had a long overdue racial reckoning in this country, and in the wake of that, we have seen organizations double down on their commitment to DEI issues," Thomas says. "But even with this heightened commitment to racial equity, women of color's experiences [at work] have not improved ... white employees are more likely now than two years ago to say they're allies in this fight, but when you look at their actions, only a small number of people are regularly advocating for better opportunities for women of color." 

Thomas adds that companies need to dig into the "hard, sustained work of changing their cultures" and invest more in employee education around combating bias and supporting colleagues from underrepresented groups to improve equity in the workplace. "It's important for employees to learn how to move through the workplace with more empathy and more intentionality," she says. 

To better support their female employees, Huang says, company leaders should reflect on their culture and systems to eradicate the "broken rung" and build an environment where all employees can thrive in its place. That not only involves employee training, she notes, but "re-designing training and development programs to reduce bias, as well as re-thinking how to reward positive leadership." 

Before companies tackle these deeper, systemic issues, however, there's a more immediate crisis among working women that leaders must recognize, Thomas adds. "We need to take bolder steps to address burnout among women," she says. "We've made a lot of great strides, but companies need to realize that burnout is on the rise, and women are barely holding on."

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