Research: Women Leaders Took on Even More Invisible Work During the Pandemic

The new 2021 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that the mission-critical work of supporting employees’ well-being and promoting DEI is being done disproportionally by women, who aren’t being rewarded or recognized for it. Companies are reaping great rewards from these efforts, but compared to men in similar roles, women leaders are more likely to be exhausted and chronically stressed at work. Alarmingly, more than half of women leaders who manage teams say that over the last few months, they have felt burned out at work “often” or “almost always,” and almost 40% of them have considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. And only about a quarter of employees say that the extra work they’re doing is formally recognized (either “a great deal” or “a substantial amount.” With women leaders experiencing sky-high burnout and many of them eyeing the door, more needs to be done so that their efforts are treated like the indispensable work it is instead of like an after-hours, do-gooder volunteer drive.

The events of the last year and a half have put intense pressure on companies to do more to support employees and act on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Women leaders are meeting this moment and taking on the extra work that comes with it — but they’re not getting recognized or rewarded for it. As a result, this mission-critical work is in danger of being relegated to “office housework”: Necessary tasks and activities that benefit the company but go unrecognized, are underappreciated, and don’t lead to career advancement. That’s a main finding from the new 2021 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, which I co-authored.

The report on the state of women in corporate America surveyed more than 400 companies and more than 65,000 employees in professional jobs from the entry level to the C-suite. The survey found that at all levels of management, women showed up as better leaders, more consistently supporting employees and championing DEI. Compared to men in similar roles, women managers invest more in helping employees navigate work-life challenges, ensuring workloads are manageable, and providing emotional support. Women managers are also more likely to act as allies to women of color by speaking out against bias and advocating for opportunities for them. Finally, women leaders are also more likely than men to spend time on DEI work outside of their formal job responsibilities, such as leading or participating in employee resource groups (ERGs) and serving on DEI committees. Among women at the manager level and above, Black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are up to twice as likely as women overall to spend a substantial amount of time promoting DEI.

Companies are reaping great rewards from these efforts. The survey found that when leaders support employee well-being and demonstrate commitment to DEI, employees are happier with their jobs, more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving. And companies purport to value this work — an overwhelming majority of them say that managers’ efforts to promote employee well-being are critically important and that DEI is a key area of focus.

But this work is taxing the people who are disproportionately doing it. Compared to men in similar roles, women leaders are more likely to be exhausted and chronically stressed at work. Alarmingly, more than half of women leaders who manage teams say that over the last few months, they have felt burned out at work “often” or “almost always,” and almost 40% of them have considered downshifting their careers (for example, by moving to part-time work) or leaving the workforce altogether. What’s more is that this work is going unrecognized. Only about a quarter of employees say that the extra work they’re doing is formally recognized (for example, in performance reviews) either “a great deal” or “a substantial amount.”

This disconnect raises an important question: If companies think this work is so critical, why aren’t they recognizing and rewarding it?

Social science research has long documented how characteristics like gender and race shape what gets counted as “real” work and how valuable that work is deemed to be. In the 1980s, the sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels coined the term “invisible work” to describe forms of women’s unpaid labor like housework and volunteer work that, while integral to the functioning of society, is not regarded as work and is culturally and economically devalued. On the job, “invisible work” often manifests as “office housework.”

Research into these cousin concepts repeatedly finds the same thing: Members of traditionally marginalized groups are more likely to do this undervalued work and be burdened by it. For example, in the academy, women faculty and particularly women faculty of color often shoulder heavier service loads and spend more time on teaching, advising, and efforts to increase diversity and inclusion on campus. Despite the importance of this work, it does not lead to tenure or promotion. In fact, doing more of it leaves less time for the work deemed most valuable in academia: research and publication. Therefore, spending significant time on service work can end up jeopardizing one’s own chances of advancement.

The concepts of invisible labor and office housework put a spotlight on a societal reluctance to value work that is predominantly done by women. This happens because such work is often conflated with assumptions about what women are naturally good at or interested in. And women are not rewarded for capacities and concerns deemed to be intrinsic. Therefore, when a woman manager provides team members with emotional support during a time of societal crises, it can be overlooked as “caretaking” instead of being recognized as strong crisis management. When a Black woman manager hosts a panel on anti-racism in the wake of racial violence, she can be applauded for her “passion” but not rewarded for her time, leadership, or DEI acumen. Moreover, since recognition and reward are the markers of valuable work, that women leaders’ efforts are going unnoticed and unrewarded effectively renders it low status. Of course, women have always done this work. But in a time of intense social upheaval, amidst a global pandemic and a national reckoning on racism, there is much more of this work to be done. And getting it done matters even more to a company’s prospects.

That the mission-critical work of supporting employees’ well-being and promoting DEI is being treated more like office housework is bad news for women leaders and their companies. This situation hurts these leaders because they’re not getting professional credit for their crucial efforts. But it also hurts the companies, which are at risk of losing the leaders driving the very efforts they say they’re committed to. Furthermore, when companies run mostly by white men reap rewards from the unrecognized and unremunerated labor done by women, especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, the work companies say is critical begins to look more like exploitation.

There are signs that some companies are beginning to take this work more seriously. Recently, Twitter and LinkedIn started giving leaders of ERGs additional pay to compensate them for their extra work. But with women leaders experiencing sky-high burnout and many of them eyeing the door, more needs to be done so that their efforts are treated like the indispensable work it is instead of like an after-hours, do-gooder volunteer drive. Women leaders are disproportionately doing the work to make their companies be better and do better. Their companies should do better by them.

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