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Women & Work: Challenges

Thursday, April 1, 2021

BY MO PERRY

 

The pandemic is exacerbating gender disparities, and the impacts may echo for years.

 

The pandemic has blurred whatever tenuous boundaries may have once existed between work and life. But it also has created an opportunity to study how these domains interact to affect people’s wellbeing, career trajectories, workplace satisfaction, and productivity. Colleen Flaherty Manchester, an associate professor and Theresa Glomb, a professor in the Department of Work and Organizations at Carlson School of Management haven’t let the opportunity go to waste.

Along with researchers at the University of Washington and California Polytechnic, Manchester and Glomb found nearly 20 percent of faculty at the University of Minnesota report experiencing high levels of burnout since the onset of the global pandemic. The levels of burnout reported by survey respondents varied significantly, with women disproportionately represented in the group with the highest levels of emotional exhaustion and lowered productivity.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some way,” says Manchester, “but the experience has not been uniform.”

In the unending quest for work-life balance, one might think that the opportunity to work exclusively from home would be a boon. But Glomb notes that what we’ve been experiencing is not simply a change of scenery, or a normal work day minus an annoying and time-consuming commute. “A key difference from previous work-from-home arrangements is that many people don’t have childcare,” Glomb says. “Kids are not in school. We’re working from home without the structural support we’re used to having, so we’re layering on extra challenges.” Employees will need varying levels of employer support as they navigate merging their personal lives and varying family structures with their professional roles.

In their study of faculty experience during the pandemic, they found that three types of experiences emerged. “Productivity forward” respondents were those who were able to be more productive since the onset of the pandemic, benefiting from the lack of a commute, fewer informal meetings, and more focus on their work. “Productivity steady” respondents reported a mixed effect. They were generally insulated from emotional exhaustion or burnout, with productivity losses in some areas compensated for by gains in others. “Productivity headwinds” respondents reported the greatest negative effects on productivity and high burnout. Women and faculty with young kids were disproportionately represented in this group, as well as people with less senior positions.

While this analysis is focused on faculty, there is reason to believe that these types of experiences may extend more broadly.

 

Headwinds Impede Advancement

How much time people allocate to different tasks at work can be key for career success. While the increased demands stemming from the pandemic have likely directly affected what people are able to tackle during the work day, they have also likely had an indirect effect through burnout. “We found that depletion can influence how much time you spend on complex work,” explains Manchester. “So maybe you spend more time on short-term, immediate tasks that benefit other people, and less on tasks that have long-term, delayed gratification.” The problem, of course, is that it’s those long-term, delayed gratification tasks that are recognized and rewarded with accolades and professional advancement.

And it’s not just non-work distractions that are encroaching on work time, as parents try to juggle childcare, remote learning, and remote work. Their research found work-related interruptions have increased as well, in a way that seems to disproportionately affect women. “When organizations are in times of change and crisis, there’s more going on,” notes Glomb. “There are tighter turnaround times, more texts and emails, you’re jumping from thing to thing, and your attention keeps switching.”

With more interruptions in both the work and non-work domains, many women are experiencing a “double whammy,” says Manchester. In the case of faculty, women and minorities are seeing the greatest increases in the amount of time spent on service work, such as forming new processes and intensified committee work.

The pandemic has also brought increased challenges in the relational elements of work, and women are more likely to be the go-to person for that domain. “There’s this notion called a ‘toxin handler’—when there’s bad stuff to handle, that falls to certain people in a work setting,” says Glomb. “When there’s a conflict, who’s expending cognitive and emotional energy sorting it out while others are blissfully unaware? Women are more likely to be the toxin handler for the group.”

All of this adds up to real and detrimental impacts on career trajectory and workplace satisfaction for many working women, as depletion leads them to seek immediate, short-term tasks that give a sense of closure and connection. While this may be a workable short-term strategy for navigating a challenging time, it comes at a cost. “People in service roles will be at a disadvantage, because the reward structure doesn’t value that,” explains Manchester. “They’ll have less time for research, and if that’s what’s rewarded, it leads to greater divergence in career outcomes.”

 

Loss of Social Connection

While the professional costs of the pandemic may take some time to manifest, the personal costs to workers’ wellbeing are already emerging. “Social connection is why we’re on this planet. It’s what makes us human,” says Glomb. “Relationships at work are a key driver of work satisfaction and workplace wellbeing and so it is no surprise that employees report the loss of the social fabric of the organization as a primary drawback of working from home. We were already seeing an epidemic of loneliness, and now the pandemic is exacerbating that.”

When Americans first retreated into their homes in the spring of 2020, there was a sense of being “in it together.” Work meetings might have included personal check-ins, asking each person to share how they’re doing. And Zoom provided humanizing windows into each other’s homes and personal spaces. But as the pandemic has worn on, the communal sense of facing the challenge as a united front has waned. “There’s a danger of deterioration of social relationships and increased isolation and loneliness,” says Glomb.

This erosion of work relationships has consequences beyond individual wellbeing. Workplace research has found that teams that nurture a sense of psychological safety and cohesiveness perform better. That cohesion may have to be mindfully cultivated as companies and organizations start to map out a path forward, and communal awareness of the disparate impacts of the pandemic will be a crucial place to start, including considering each employee’s specific family situation.

When there’s a conflict, who’s expending cognitive and emotional energy sorting it out while others are blissfully unaware? Women are more likely to be the toxin handler for the group.

Theresa Glomb headshot
– Theresa Glomb

The Role of Leaders

Over the past year, we’ve already seen evidence of what’s been dubbed a “she-cession.” A quarter of working women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to burnout, according to a study conducted by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org. Another recent report, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that in December of 2020 alone, there were 140,000 job losses nationally, across all sectors—all of them held by women, mostly Black and Latina. (A separate survey showed even wider gaps among the self-employed.)

Glomb says leaders have a role to play in making sure hard-won gender gains in the workplace aren’t wiped out by the pandemic.

She cites a story of a woman who went to her boss asking to scale back to an 80 percent work schedule. “And her boss said, ‘No, you can’t put your career on hold. Go ahead and step back from work, and we’ll just recognize everyone needs grace right now.’”

Manchester agrees that leaders will need to do their best to counteract the uneven impacts of the pandemic on their team members, taking into account balancing their specific family needs with work ones. “It’s important to know that the experience [of the pandemic] hasn’t been the same for everyone, and some people will need to make up for lost time to reestablish their career trajectory,” says Manchester. “People will be set on these different trajectories if we don’t attempt to ameliorate some of these effects.”

Spring 2021 alumni magazine cover

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 alumni magazine

Women & Work: Exploring the challenges—and opportunities—presented by the pandemic.

Spring 2021 table of contents