Lean In CEO Hits 'Panic Button' as COVID Pushes Women to Leave Workforce

October 15, 2020
Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.org, is concerned about a study from her organization and McKinsey showing that one out of four women is in danger of either scaling back their professional ambitions or dropping out of the workforce altogether.
"We know that women are struggling to balance work with everything else going on during COVID-19," Thomas, who is sounding the alarm about the millions of women suffering burnout.
"And if they do we will roll back the progress we've seen in the representation of women," she said. "In a single year, we'll roll back years of progress."
Senior-level women, mothers, and Black women are most affected by the pressures of the pandemic, according to the Lean In CEO, and women in management positions are particularly struggling with feeling required to work harder than their peers and dealing with professional burnout.
"We know when there's more women in leadership, companies perform better, we know cultures are stronger. We also know that senior-level women are more likely to mentor, sponsor, and serve as allies for women of color," said Thomas. "Women who are earlier in the pipeline, earlier in their careers will not look up and see senior-level women, the women we've worked so hard to get there over the last decade."
Dropping some advice for the working moms, Thomas said to communicate openly with managers, make practical, specific asks for things that can help with the work-life balance, and recruit the work "posse" who might help raise visibility regarding accomplishments, especially as working from home tends to diminish one's ability to be noticed.
Thomas also addressed the bias against women with children, the "motherhood penalty," that colors the view of working mothers as somehow being less committed and less productive. She noted that businesses and organizations need to be empathetic in regards to the added difficulties moms face especially during the pandemic. 
"It's not just the extra childcare. It's not just the extra housework. Mothers are afraid their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities," she said. "They're twice as concerned about it as fathers."
While she highlighted some things to be optimistic about following the pandemic, such as remote work being made a permanent feature, a greater diversity of hires due to the proliferation of working from home, and more empathy as businesses improve worker well-being and employees have "more visibility" in each other's personal lives, Thomas did have a caveat for this sunny outlook. "If I had a panic button right now, I'd be hitting it when you think about the repercussions of losing so many women," she said.
With the ongoing concern that COVID is driving unprecedented levels of burnout, the Lean In CEO explained that companies need to adapt their expectations for issues such as goal-setting, performance reviews, and time management so that workers are not made to feel like they are on the clock at all times.
"It's not just women. Women are more impacted. It's all employees who are struggling to get through this," Thomas said.
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