Women Rising as Leaders Companies Need, but Work Is Unrecognized

LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company released the seventh annual “Women in the Workplace” report, the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. The findings point to three key trends:

  • A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear women are burned out and at risk of leaving the workforce.
  • Women are stepping up as stronger leaders, but their work often goes unrecognized.
  • Corporate America fails women of color despite two years of increased focus on racial equity.

The report is based on data and insights from 423 companies representing more than 12 million people, along with survey responses from more than 65,000 individual employees. It shows that despite important gains since 2016, women remain significantly underrepresented at all levels of management in corporate America.

At the same time, women in leadership are rising to the moment as stronger people leaders and more active champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—and are taking on the extra work that comes with it.

Compared to men at the same level, women in senior leadership are 60 percent more likely to provide emotional support to employees and 24 percent more likely to ensure their teams’ workloads are manageable.

Senior women leaders are also twice as likely to spend a substantial amount of time doing DEI work outside of their formal job responsibilities — from recruiting candidates belonging to underrepresented communities to leading employee resource groups. At every level, women are more likely than men to show up as allies to women of color.

Companies have benefited significantly from women’s leadership during this year of unprecedented workplace changes. However, this critical work is largely going unrecognized and unrewarded. Despite companies signaling a high commitment to DEI and employee wellbeing, only 25 percent say their formal performance review process recognizes this type of work to a substantial degree. This has serious implications. Companies risk losing the very leaders they need right now.

While all employees are more burned out than last year, women have been hit particularly hard. Forty-two percent of women report being burned out, as compared to 35 percent of men. And 24/7 cultures are driving this exhaustion. More than one in three employees feel as if they are expected to be “on” at all times, and those who feel this way are more than twice as likely to be burned out.

Despite a greater awareness of DEI issues and increased focus and investment on racial equity in corporate America, women of color continue to experience similar types of microaggressions at similar frequencies as they did two years ago. These experiences can take a heavy toll: compared to women of color who don’t experience microaggressions, women of color who do are more than twice as likely to feel negatively about their job, twice as likely to be burned out, and three times as likely to say they’ve struggled to concentrate at work due to stress.

And while more white employees see themselves as allies to women of color this year, they are no more likely to act. Seventy-seven percent of white employees say they’re allies to women of color, but only 39 percent confront discrimination when they see it and only 21 percent advocate for new opportunities for women of color. This points to the critical need for businesses to equip employees at all levels to challenge bias and show up as substantive allies.

In addition to steps companies can take to recognize women’s leadership, create a more inclusive culture, and reduce burnout, the 2021 Women in the Workplace report includes best practices for eliminating bias in hiring and promotions, a detailed look at what HR leaders and employees see as the benefits and risks of remote work, and data-driven vignettes on the distinct experiences of Asian women, Black women, Latinas, lesbian and bisexual women, as well as women with disabilities.

The complete report is available at womenintheworkplace.com.