Closing The Gap

Women's ambition plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, as careers stalled and burnout spiked

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Though the pandemic has made workplace flexibility more of a reality for some workers, many women, especially working moms, are still at their breaking point when it comes to balancing home life and work life.

In fact, 65% of working women believe the pandemic has made things worse for women at work, according to CNBC and SurveyMonkey's new Women at Work survey. Of the more than 3,600 women participants, more than half said they feel burned out at least some of the time and more than a third said they've thought about quitting their job over the past year. These factors have also led to women feeling less ambitious when it comes to their careers, with 42% of working women today describing themselves as "very ambitious," down from 54% in the Women at Work survey released in March 2020.

"I'm not surprised as this has been an incredibly hard year in many ways," Bridget van Kralingen, IBM's global markets senior vice president tells CNBC Make It. "And I think if companies don't step up to help, there will be long-term impacts."

Those long-term impacts include a decrease in the talent pipeline of women, as well as a decrease in overall career earnings if women leave the workplace due to lack of ambition or burnout. For example, if a woman starts working at 22 earning $50,000 a year, and takes a three-year career break at 26, studies show that she stands to lose roughly $506,000 due to a combination of lost salary, retirement savings and Social Security contributions.

To prevent this from happening, Kralingen says we have to focus not only on why women are feeling less ambitious and burned out, but we also have to focus on the solutions companies can implement to ensure women are feeling heard, seen and supported in the workplace.

Reasons for burnout and decreased ambition

AnnMarie Duchon, a single mom of an 11-year-old, knows how overwhelming things have been for working parents this past year. As the interim director of disability services for a university in Massachusetts, Duchon has been fortunate enough to work from home. But, between taking care of her daughter who is in remote school, and running errands for her elderly parents in order to limit their exposure to Covid-19, she says things have been "a real challenge."

"There's just a lot more needs than there's time," she says. At work, she and her team had to quickly come up with a plan for how they would work remotely, as well as a plan for how they could safely reopen the university. "So I'm working a lot more and a lot of harder. In addition to being at home with my 11-year-old who's at the prime time in her life where friends are super important, and you know, I'm it...so I'm just really taxed all day long."

Similar to Duchon, more than a third of women with children under 18 say "difficulty balancing work and family obligations" are the main reason for their burnout. Already, Duchon says she's had one staff member quit because it was too much to take care of her newborn baby and two other young children while balancing work.

"I've certainly had other folks on my staff who needed more flexibility in their schedule due to child care and fortunately we've been able to make it happen," she says. "But, I imagine they are also feeling the squeeze of like, 'Oh shoot, I didn't get that done today. I'll get up early tomorrow to make sure it gets done' because what we do is important and we have to make sure that students have access to their classes."

While Duchon has been fortunate enough to keep her job during a time when nearly 5.1 million women have lost work since the start of the pandemic, she says the past year has put a halt on her career plans. Before the pandemic, she accepted her interim director role with hopes of eventually being promoted to permanent director. But, she says the pandemic has delayed the process for her promotion.

Like Duchon, more than a fifth of working women say they've also experienced a career setback over the past year, which, when combined with burnout, can be tied to women feeling less ambitious in their careers.

When broken down by race, ambition declined more significantly for women of color over the past year, with 54% of Black women and 42% of Hispanic women today describing themselves as "very ambitious," compared to 75% and 65%, respectively, last year. White women also showed a decrease in ambition with 38% describing themselves as "very ambitious" today, compared to 46% last year.

This disparity is likely linked to women of color being impacted the most by job losses during the pandemic. In February 2021, women overall experienced an unemployment rate of 5.9%, while Black women and Latinas experienced unemployment rates of 8.9% and 8.5%, respectively. If the more than 2.3 million women who have left the labor force over the past year were included in this unemployment count, National Women's Law Center estimates that the unemployment rate for Black women and Latinas would be in the double digits at 14.1% and 13.1%, respectively.

Companies need to reassess gender equity initiatives

While the pandemic has certainly added extra layers of stress to women who are trying to balance it all, Kralingen says there's more that companies can do to increase support for women at work.

In IBM's recently released study titled "Women, leadership and missed opportunities," researchers looked at the results from their inaugural 2019 report and compared it to 2021 data to see if any progress had been made around gender equity in the workplace. The report found that while in 2021 more organizations have initiatives for improving gender equity and inclusion, such as gender-blind job screenings and parental leave, these initiatives have not translated to more women in the talent pipeline.

Between 2019 and 2021, IBM data shows that the pipeline of women in leadership actually decreased. At the senior manager level, the number of women decreased from 25% in 2019 to 21% in 2021. At the vice president level the number of women decreased from 19% to 15%, and at the senior vice president level the number of women decreased from 18% to 13% over the same time period.

Part of the reason for these declining numbers, Kralingen says, is that despite more companies having diversity and inclusion initiatives, very few have actually taken the steps to prioritize these initiatives and few have worked to change the mindset and culture at their company. In fact, IBM found that gender equity is not a top priority for 70% of global businesses, despite the heightened awareness of the pandemic's impact on women. And, of the more than 2,600 executives surveyed, 58% say they feel like their organization has a "do it when they can" approach to gender equity.

To fix this, Kralingen says companies need to set targets around gender diversity to ensure that during this critical time period, and after, they are hiring and promoting women fairly. She says companies also need to provide additional benefits like backup child care and mental health resources to ensure that employees feel supported at work. In IBM's 2021 CEO Study, it was found that the best performing CEOs are those who show that they are committed to their employees' health and wellness.

"I just think it's an incredibly difficult time for everyone, but the resiliency that's demanded of working women is just beyond belief," Kralingen adds.

In addition to diversity targets, backup child care and mental health resources, Kralingen says companies need to ensure that they are providing the same sponsorship and mentorship opportunities to women and they need to buckle down on offering returnships for women who have taken a break from the workplace.

"I would challenge every company to have an on-ramp [program] for women returning to work, whether it be for previous employees or women coming back to work from elsewhere," she says. These programs should include "mentorship, support and retraining on technology tools," she explains.

Right now, IBM has a six-month paid returnship program for professionals who have taken a break from the workforce. Kralingen says 99% of its participants are women with about 75% of them joining the company full-time after completing their returnship. Over the past year, she says, demand for the program has increased by 167%.

"I think we have to say that we've taken an epic step back [this past year]," she says. But, with the right programs and support in place, "I would say that this is fixable."

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Coronavirus pandemic sets back women's progress in workforce