Women of colour in US still face greater barriers at work: Report

The annual Women in the Workplace report finds American women are more burned out than they were a year ago – and women of colour are still facing more challenges and receiving less support.

McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org's seventh annual report examined data from 423 major companies, surveyed more than 65,000 employees and conducted interviews with people from diverse backgrounds to take stock of how American women are faring more than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic [File: Jason Alden/Bloomberg]

Women who work in the United States are more burned out than they were a year ago, while commitments to advance diversity, equity and inclusion are not translating into better experiences at work for women of colour, a report published on Monday finds.

McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org’s seventh annual report on Women in the Workplace examined data from 423 major US companies, surveyed more than 65,000 employees and conducted interviews with people from diverse backgrounds to take stock of how American women are faring more than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic.

The report found that the gap in burnout between women and men has nearly doubled over the past year as in-person workplace paradigms continue to be upended, and women assume greater caregiving burdens stemming from hybrid schooling and daycare centre closures.

The share of women saying they were often or almost always burned out at work rose to 42 percent in the latest survey — 7 percentage points higher than the share of men, and a full 10 percentage points higher than last year.

“Women who manage teams were significantly more likely to be burned out than men at the same level,” Ishanaa Rambachan, a partner at McKinsey & Company and study co-author, told Al Jazeera. “We see a real risk here. Women are at risk of leaving and in many cases, these are exactly the ones who stepped up in the pandemic to take leadership roles in really helping the office and building culture.”

The levels of exhaustion are reflected in the survey’s finding that one in three women say they have considered either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely, a dramatic rise from the one in four who reported feeling this way in the first few months of the pandemic.

Relentless 24-7 corporate work cultures are driving the exhaustion, with over a third of employees saying they feel like they need to be available around the clock and that they need to work long hours to move up the corporate ladder.

“What we found is remote work is not going to be a panacea for attracting and retaining diverse talent,” Rambachan explained. “Both men and women want to work at least one day a week remotely, for sure. But we’ve eliminated the commute and now we’re all sleeping at the office. So there need to be real guardrails and thoughtfulness about remote work. What is the day-to-day structure? When will there be moments when we all step away and come back online?”

Barriers for women of colour

The report found a disconnect between the growing commitment in corporate America to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and the actual day-to-day experiences of women of colour and women with marginalised identities.

“I think we were all surprised to see that despite the heightened focus on racial equity and the heightened focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, that women of colour’s experiences are not changing or not improving dramatically in the workplace. They experience similar frequencies and types of microaggressions as they did a few years ago,” Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.org and study co-author, told Al Jazeera.

“On top of that, white employees are more likely this year to say they’re showing up as allies. And on the face of it, that’s good, but they’re no more likely to be showing up as allies and taking the action of allyship,” Thomas added. “There’s just a very big gap between intent and action when it comes to allyship.”

In addition to microaggressions, women of colour also experience higher levels of “othering” as well as a greater range of both disrespectful behaviours — from being interrupted or spoken over more than others, to feeling as if they are expected to speak on behalf of all people who share their identity — all of which contributes to higher levels of burnout.

“Microaggression is, by definition, everyday discrimination,” Thomas said. “What happens is over time, microaggressions really build up and they create work experiences for women that start to feel untenable. It’s only commonsensical that if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of everyday discrimination and a lot of everyday slights and othering behaviour, that it’s going to take a toll on you.”

The report found that women who regularly experience microaggressions are twice as likely as those who don’t to experience burnout and more than twice as likely to report feeling negatively about their job.

There is already a “broken rung” when it comes to women’s ascension to management positions: for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are. And that gap is even more pronounced for women of colour. Just 12 percent of managers in 2021 are women of colour, the study found, versus 42 percent who are white men.

That has led one in eight women of colour to report being a “double only” — the only woman and the only person of their race or ethnicity in the room at work. That lack of diversity contributes to women of colour’s experiences of microaggressions, which are happening at the same rate as two years ago, the report found.

Asian women who are “double onlys” are more likely to report experiencing microaggressions at work, the report found, and one in four Asian women reported being personally impacted by racial trauma in the last year amid the rise of anti-Asian bias during the spread of the coronavirus, the first cases of which were reported in China.

Black women face the most disproportionate barriers to advancement at work, the study found, and experience the most microaggressions as well as bias in hiring and promotions. Sixty percent of Black women reported being impacted by racial trauma in the past year.

Latina women reported having less flexibility when it comes to their time at work and spending more time on housework and caregiving tasks than other women, with 43 percent saying they spend more than five hours per week on household tasks, versus 34 percent of women overall.

Latinas were also more likely to report caring for children as well as an elderly family member, the report found. This, combined with the lack of flexibility to take time off for family or personal reasons, led many to consider leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers.

DEI disconnect

While companies are pushing for DEI, the job of actually recruiting and supporting diverse talent is largely falling to women in addition to their regular workloads — with little formal recognition of the time or commitment it takes.

Approximately 20 percent of senior women leaders reported spending a “substantial amount of time on DEI work that is not central to their job” versus fewer than 10 percent of men at the same level, the study found.

In addition, women of colour, women with disabilities and LGBTQ+ women were more likely to report spending time on DEI responsibilities that were outside of the scope of their jobs, the study found.

And not all firms’ DEI initiatives are created equal. While 60 percent of employees say their companies prioritise racial diversity, just 25 percent say their firms prioritise people with disabilities in DEI efforts.

While the majority of companies say fostering diversity and promoting employee wellbeing is important, just 25 percent recognise that work in their formal review process in a substantial way.

This gap can mean that when it comes time for managers to review an employee’s work and make recommendations about potential raises, promotions or other advancement opportunities, all of the time and emotional labour women have put in isn’t valued as much as more quantitative goals.

Source: Al Jazeera