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Sheryl Sandberg: Companies and Women Are at a Crossroads

A crisis is looming in corporate America: More than one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

This is a central finding of the 2020 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., the largest study of its kind. For the past six years, our study has revealed slow but measurable progress for women at all levels of management. Now all those gains could be wiped out in a single year. Up to two million women could leave their jobs. If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it.

During Covid-19, no one is experiencing business as usual. But women have been affected the most—three groups in particular.

First, working mothers were already working a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours of work at home—before the pandemic. With many schools and child-care options closed, that double shift has doubled again: Mothers are more likely than fathers to be spending an extra 20 hours a week on housework and child care during Covid-19. That’s half a full-time job. And on top of this, mothers are twice as likely to worry that their work performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities. This concern is so pervasive that many mothers don’t feel comfortable sharing work-life challenges with co-workers—or even letting them know they have children at all. It reminds us of an earlier, worse era when women couldn’t talk about their kids and still be taken seriously as professionals.

Second, senior-level women are under intense pressure at work and home. Women are typically held to higher performance standards and blamed more for failure, so when stakes are high—as they are now—senior-level women are more likely to be judged harshly. And among senior-level leaders with partners, 63% of women have one who also works full time, compared with just 35% of men. The result: Senior-level women are 1.5 times as likely as men at the same level to think about downshifting or leaving, and the top reason they cite is burnout.

Third, Black women are dealing with all these challenges, as well as burdens only they bear: They’re shouldering both the emotional tolls of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community and incidents of racist violence across the country. For many, work isn’t a supportive place: Black women are more likely than other employees to feel excluded and like they can’t bring their whole selves to work. These feelings can accelerate burnout. Companies need to address this head-on with with training in antiracism and how to show up as allies for Black colleagues.

Corporate leaders may read this and think, “We know our employees are struggling right now. We’re doing what we can.” And many companies are indeed taking action: They’re being more upfront with employees about their financial situations, expanding mental-health services, and providing emergency loans and grants. It’s all commendable, but these steps don’t address the crux of the issue, which is that women are burning out. That’s the problem companies need to solve.

To do that, they should consider resetting goals and extending deadlines wherever possible. They should also reflect on performance reviews: Is it fair to hold employees to criteria set before Covid-19? Should performance ratings be adjusted to reflect the reality this year? These are hard questions to answer, and every team is different. But nothing about work right now is typical, so expectations of employees shouldn’t be either.

Working from home has blurred the line between work and home, and many employees now feel “always on”—available to their employer 24/7. Companies could set new norms to help reduce that feeling—for example, establishing set hours for meetings and making sure managers are evaluating employees based on what they’ve accomplished, not how many hours they’ve worked. They should also make it OK for employees to set their own boundaries, and leaders should model this.

Some companies may think that worrying about employee burnout is a luxury they can’t afford right now. In fact, it’s mission-critical. If companies rise to the moment, they can head off the disaster of losing millions of women and setting gender diversity back years. They can also lay the groundwork for a better future beyond Covid-19. Cracking the code of making “work from home” work for employees will yield major rewards in the future. And if we can make work truly fit into people’s lives, it will be a more supportive workplace for everyone.

Ms. Sandberg is Facebook Inc.’s chief operating officer and the founder of LeanIn.Org. Ms. Thomas is the chief executive officer of Lean In.

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