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Burnout: The reality of 2021 for women in the workplace

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 20 Oct 2021

The latest Women in the Workplace report shows that women working in corporate roles in America are increasingly burned out, are still being recruited into management roles at a far lower rate than their male counterparts and lack recognition for their leadership.

Although based on data from 423 organisations in America, including the views of 65,000 people surveyed, the findings from McKinsey (in partnership with LeanIn.Org) have resonance in the British workplace and the report makes for sobering reading.

We’ve pulled out some of the key findings below and you can read the full report here

More female managers, but still a ‘broken rung’

Although women are still significantly underrepresented at all levels of US management, there have been important gains made since the first Women in the Workplace report was issued in 2016.

However, the report calls out what it calls a ‘broken rung’ on the career ladder for women looking to make the move into management roles. For every 100 men promoted to management, only 86 women are promoted. This means there’s a smaller pool of female managers to choose from when it comes to promoting into more senior roles, perpetuating female underrepresentation at board level. 

The story for ethnic minority women is even more disheartening. They haven’t benefited from the overall growth in female managers and continue to lose ground at every rung of the career ladder. Between entry level and C-suite roles, the representation of ethnic minority women drops off by a shocking 75%, with ethnic minority women making up only 4% of the C-suite demographic. 

Women experiencing burnout at higher rates than men

18 months into the pandemic, the women surveyed said they were more burned out than this time last year. One in three said they’d considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce entirely. This compares to one in four during the first few months of the pandemic. 

Tellingly, the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled since this time last year as women continue to feel the brunt of the joint pressures of home and work. 

Female leaders not recognised for supporting employees

The pandemic has brought about seismic shifts both at work and home, meanwhile a heightened focus on race and racial violence has brought diversity inclusion to the fore. 

The report found that women are doing more than men to support the people in their teams to navigate work-life balance challenges, ensuring workloads are manageable and checking in on their overall wellbeing. 

Plus, women leaders spend twice as much time as men on taking on additional responsibilities related to diversity and inclusion, such as supporting employee resources, and are more likely to be active allies to ethnic minority women.

Although employers see the benefit of this work, women are not being formally recognised through performance reviews for these important actions. 

Ethnic minority women have a worse experience at work 

Ethnic minority women continue to experience discrimination at work and suffer a higher rate of microaggressions, such as having their judgement undermined by colleagues. Although the number of White employees who identify as allies to ethnic minority women has increased over the past year, the number taking allyship actions (such as speaking out against discrimination) has not.

All women are more likely than men to experience microaggressions in the workplace, but for ethnic minority women and other traditionally marginalised identities these experiences are more frequent. The impact of these putdowns should not be underestimated, with the report showing that women who regularly experience microaggressions are twice as likely to feel burned out and are more than twice as likely to have negative feelings towards their job.

Tellingly, less than half of ethnic minority women believe their company has substantially followed through on commitments to racial equality. 

How we can change things

The issues raised in this report are by no means peculiar to America and its recommendations for change are just as relevant on this side of the pond. 

Organisations looking to make meaningful improvements to their diversity and inclusion, especially in relation to women, should look to: 

  1. Create a culture that leverages the benefits of diversity, equality and inclusion. Increasing numbers alone isn’t enough. 
  2. Put more practices in place to ensure promotions are equitable.
  3. Track representation and hiring and promotion outcomes more fully, including race and other traditionally marginalised identities. Notice where there are gaps and increase your focus on best practice in those areas. 
  4. Hold senior leaders and managers accountable for progress on diversity goals. Currently only two-thirds of senior leaders and less than a third of managers (who often make hiring decisions) are held accountable. 
  5. Model inclusive behaviour at a leadership level, including leaders actively participating in training and events related to diversity and inclusion. 
  6. Raise awareness of the barriers women face and the benefits of a more inclusive culture through sharing data, encouraging colleagues to share their experiences and bringing in thought-provoking speakers. Training can then be leveraged to move awareness to action.
  7. Clearly communicate what is expected of employees and what it means to have an inclusive culture. Experiment to find what sticks in your organisation.
  8. Support flexible working within boundaries, to avoid employees feeling like they’re ‘always on’. Managers modelling work-life balance boundaries and ensuring performance is evaluated based on results are two key ways to make hybrid working a success and cut burn out. 

For more on this topic, please visit the ICAEW Diversity and Inclusion Hub.

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