This month we’re introducing a new series, “Did You Know What the Research Says?” that covers the latest research that’s relevant to our community. We’ll be synthesizing and sharing findings from research reports on topics relevant to Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour (BIWoC) in the workplace. Our hope is to provide relevant insights to offer a deeper understanding of some of the opportunities and gaps for addressing challenges faced by BIWoC in the workplace as well as links to further reading.

In this post we will be exploring some key findings of a major annual report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org: Women in the Workplace 2020. This year’s report aptly provides insights on the impact of COVID-19 on the state of women in the workplace. 

There is no doubt the global pandemic has created many uncertainties within workplaces. Women — especially BIWoC — have concerns about the negative impact of the pandemic on career advancement, financial security and wellbeing. To retain women impacted most by the disruptions posed by the pandemic, leaders, managers and allies can take some important steps to reduce the pressures being reported.

Inequities amplified by the global pandemic

BIWoC continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions and the “broken rung” in promotions at the first step to a manager position is a barrier that continues to persist. The global pandemic is sadly negatively impacting the small gains that have been made. 

This is the first time signs of a higher percentage of women “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce are evident. There are multiple reasons for this trend including lack of work flexibility, feeling burnout from being “always on”, balancing housework and caregiving with work, worrying about their performance, lack of psychological safety to share challenges with teammates and managers, and feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work (particularly prominent for Black women). 

According to the findings, many companies have taken steps to support employees through Covid-19 by, for example, providing updates, information and expanding support services. However, few companies have taken steps to address underlying causes such as modifying practices and expectations that are leading to employee burnout. The findings suggest that less than one third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria given the challenges created by the pandemic, and approximately half have updated employees about productivity expectations and plans for performance reviews.

Women often work a ‘double shift’ — working full-time, doing significantly more housework and providing childcare than men. Covid-19 has amplified the double-shift with more unstable access to schools and childcare. The pandemic has been especially challenging for Black women who are more likely to be their family’s sole breadwinner or to have partners working outside the home.

More support in the workplace needed for Black women during Covid-19

The historically negative experiences of Black women in the workplace have been amplified by the events of 2020. According to the report, Black women “are more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic” (p. 29). Further, the incidents of racial violence in the United States have been emotionally taxing and taking a heavy toll.

Black women are less likely than women overall to indicate that their managers have asked about their workload and work-life needs being met. Fewer than 1 in 3 Black women report that their managers have “checked in on them in light of recent racial violence” (p. 29). Lastly, Black women are much less likely than white colleagues to say they have strong allies at work. These issues create barriers to a psychologically safe climate. It is no surprise that Black women are less likely to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

An Intersectional Lens is Imperative During Covid-19

The experiences of women are not monolithic – there is no one universal experience. And this is especially true during Covid-19. The study shows that not only women’s experiences are worse than those of men during the pandemic, but also women’s experiences are different across social identity dimensions. Hence, applying an intersectional lens to understanding the differences is crucial. 

Intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Dr. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a pioneering scholar and writer on civil rights, critical race theory, Black feminist theory, and Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA. In this video, Dr. Crenshaw defines Intersectionality: “Intersectionality is a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and they create obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism or whatever social justice advocacy structures we have.” Intersectionality recognizes the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, etc. regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination, oppression or disadvantage (adapted from Oxford Dictionary). 

According to the McKinsey report, BIWoC, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities face distinct challenges. Black women are more likely than women overall to feel exhausted and least included. Black women are also more likely than other races and ethnicities to feel discomfort talking with colleagues about their grief, loss and impact of Covid-19 on their community as well as their views on racial inequity and current events.  

Actions to address inequities amplified by Covid-19

With more women considering “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce altogether coupled with the labyrinth of barriers that continue to hold women, especially BIWoC, back from advancement, the report offers actionable steps companies can take to retain women impacted by the global pandemic. What is clear is that equitable and inclusive leadership and empathy are critical for allies, managers and leaders to embrace as they consider these action steps.

  • Creating a more sustainable pace at work: Ensure mothers, senior-level women, and all employees are working at a sustainable pace by reassessing productivity and performance metrics and when necessary, reset goals, narrow project scopes, or extend deadlines. 
  • Redefining work norms: With remote work, it becomes challenging for employees to draw the line between work and home. Set new work norms by having policies about responding to emails outside of typical business hours, for example. 
  • Account for the pandemic when conducting performance reviews: Performance reviews need to account for the fact that we are now in the midst of a pandemic which creates additional challenges for employees in their work and personal lives. 
  • Continue taking measures to minimize gender bias: Gender biases can show up in new ways during COVID-19, for example judging women whose children are playing in the background of a Zoom call. We build on this recommendation by stressing the importance of applying an intersectional lens to this work to go beyond one size fits all approaches. 
  • Better support employees through additional supports: Reallocate resources to better support employees. For example, offer mental health counselling and ensure that employees know about it. We add to this recommendation by stressing the importance of offering culturally responsive mental health supports and counselling.
  • Empathic communication matters: Communicate often and with empathy so that employees feel valued and understood. Doing so can reduce anxiety and build psychological safety and trust among employees, especially BIWoC, and especially during a crisis. 
  • Recognize and act upon the experiences of Black women head-on: Make an explicit commitment to advancing and supporting Black women. Communicate this commitment within the organization along with why it’s important. It is imperative to apply an intersectional lens to this work setting and tracking goals and outcomes by gender and race combined.
  • Foster a culture that values Black women: Make it clear that discriminatory behaviour and microaggressions are not tolerated, have policies around conduct and emphasize what positive, inclusive behaviour looks like, and continue to ensure organizational norms, practices, policies are inclusive — and we add, equitable. We also stress the importance of senior leadership role modeling and building cultures of active allyship. 

Read the full report here.

About the Authors

Shefaly Gunjal is a professional and researcher in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space who focuses on addressing the barriers Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour face in the Canadian workplace. She is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, the Impact Research Lead at Accelerate Her Future, and a Research Associate at Canadian Equality Consulting. Shefaly recently finished an internship at Global Compact Network Canada working on their gender equality in the Canadian private sector project. 

Dr.Golnaz Golnaraghi is Founder of Divity Group Inc. and  Accelerate Her FutureTM . After a 15-year marketing management career with large multinational service firms, Golnaz pursued teaching future leaders in college and university and launched her consulting practice. Golnaz is a TEDx speaker, who has presented and published research in the areas of gender and racial equality, immigrant and intersectional identities in the workplace and transformative learning in higher education at international conferences such as Academy of Management and Business for Gender Equality 2020 and in peer-review publications and books including The Oxford Handbook for Diversity in Organizations

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash