“I’d just graduated from an Ivy League business school, was super pumped up and loved the idea of leaning in,” says Jia, whose last name is being withheld to protect her professional reputation. “Learning to self-promote felt so empowering, and I was 100% ready to prove that I was the woman who could have it all: be a high-powered career woman and a great mother.”
But today, the 38-year-old strikes a different tone. For years, she says, she feels like she’s been overlooked for promotions and pay rises at work on account of her gender, particularly after becoming a mother in 2018. Since then, she’s picked up the brunt of childcare responsibilities because her husband, who is a banker, has tended to travel more frequently for work. That, she adds, has given her a misguided reputation among her colleagues and managers – the majority of whom are male – for not being professionally driven.
When Covid-19 Struck
Then when Covid-19 hit, it was as if all the factors already holding her back were supercharged. When her daughter’s daycare closed in March 2020, Jia became the default caregiver while trying to stay afloat at work. “I was extremely unmotivated because I felt like I was spending all hours of the day trying not to fall off an accelerating treadmill,” she explains. “But at the same time, I felt like I was being trusted less and less to be able to do a good job. I could feel my career slipping through my fingers and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.”
In early 2021, Jia’s therapist told her she was suffering from burnout. Jia says she’d never struggled with her mental health before. “But now I’m just trying to get through each week while staying sane,” she says.
Jia’s story is symptomatic of a deeply ingrained imbalance in society that the pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated. For multiple reasons, women, particularly mothers, are still more likely than men to manage a more complex set of responsibilities on a daily basis – an often unpredictable combination of unpaid domestic chores and paid professional work.
Though the mental strain of mastering this balancing act has been apparent for decades, Covid-19 has cast a particularly harsh light on the problem. Statistics show that stress and burnout are affecting more women than men, and particularly more working mothers than working fathers. This could have multiple impacts for the post-pandemic world of work, making it important that both companies and wider society find ways to reduce this imbalance.
Recent data looking specifically at burnout in women is concerning. According to a survey by LinkedIn of almost 5,000 Americans, 74% of women said they were very or somewhat stressed for work-related reasons, compared with just 61% of employed male respondents.
A separate analysis from workplace-culture consultancy a Great Place to Work and health-care start-up Maven found that mothers in paid employment are 23% more likely to experience burnout than fathers in paid employment. An estimated 2.35 million working mothers in the US have suffered from burnout since the start of the pandemic, specifically “due to unequal demands of home and work”, the analysis showed.
Experts generally agree that there’s no single reason women burn out, but they widely acknowledge that the way societal structures and gender norms intersect plays a significant role. Workplace inequalities, for example, are inextricably linked to traditional gender roles.
In the US, women still earn an average of about 82 cents for each dollar earned by a man, and the gap across many countries in Europe is similar. Jia’s firm does not publish its gender pay gap data, but she suspects that it’s significant. Moreover, she thinks many of her male peers earn more than her, something that causes her a huge amount of stress.
Are my underselling myself?
“The idea that I might be underselling myself is extremely frustrating, but I also don’t want to make myself unpopular by asking for more money when I’m already pushing the boundaries by asking my company to make accommodations for me having to care for my daughter,” she says. “It’s a constant internal battle.”
Research links lower incomes to higher stress levels and worse mental health in general. But several studies have also shown more specifically that incidences of burnout among women are greater because of differences in job conditions and the impact of gender on progression.
In 2018, researchers from the University of Montreal published a study tracking 2,026 workers over the course of four years. The academics concluded that women were more vulnerable to burnout than men because women were less likely to be promoted than men, and therefore more likely to be in positions with less authority which can lead to increased stress and frustration. The researchers also found that women were more likely to head single-parent families, experience child-related strains, invest time in domestic tasks, and have lower self-esteem – all things that can exacerbate burnout.
Nancy Beauregard, a professor at the University of Montreal and one of the authors of that study, said that reflecting on her work back in 2018, it’s clear that Covid-19 has amplified the existing inequalities and imbalances that her team demonstrated through their research. “In terms of [the] sustainable development of the human capital of the workforce,” she says, “we’re not heading in a good direction.”
A pandemic catalyst
Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner, a global research and advisory firm headquartered in Connecticut, US, agrees that while many of the factors fueling women’s burnout were in play before the pandemic, Covid-19 notably exacerbated some as it forced us to dramatically overhaul our living and working routines.
As women lost crucial social lifelines during lockdown which may have been emotional and physical outlets for stress, it’s clear that the abrupt avalanche of extra domestic responsibilities pushed many who were already busily juggling home and work life further than they could go.
‘What’s the cost?’
One of the greatest concerns workplace experts harbour is that poor mental health among women in the workplace could discourage future generations from setting ambitious professional goals, particularly if they want to start a family. That could exacerbate the gender inequalities that already exist in terms of pay and seniority in the labour market.
Data indicate that this is indeed a legitimate concern; statistics and polling company, SurveyMonkey earlier this year showed that the number of women describing themselves as “very ambitious” in terms of their careers declined significantly during the pandemic. Data from the US Census Bureau shows that over the first 12 weeks of the pandemic, the percentage of mothers between the ages of 25 and 44 not working due to Covid-19-related childcare issues grew by 4.8 percentage points, compared to no increase for men in the same age group.
To prevent an exodus of female talent, says Kropp, organisations must appreciate that old workplaces practices are no longer fit for purpose. Managers need to fundamentally rethink how companies must be structured in order to promote fairness and equality of opportunity, he says. That means pay equality and equal opportunities for promotion, as well as creating a culture of transparency where everyone – mothers, fathers and employees who are not parents – feels valued and can reach their professional potential while also accommodating what’s going on at home.
As such, Hephzi Pemberton, founder of the Equality Group, a London-based consultancy that focuses on inclusion and diversity in the finance and technology industry, emphasises the need for managers to be trained formally and to understand that the initiative to create a workplace that’s fit for purpose must come from the employer rather than the employee. “That’s absolutely critical to avoid the risk of burnout,” she says.
Jia is at the brink of quitting
But Jia, who says she’s now on the brink of quitting her job, insists that notable changes need to happen in the home as well as the workplace. “What’s become abundantly clear to me through the pandemic is that we all have a role to play in understanding the imbalances that are created when stereotypical gender roles are blindly adhered to,” she says. “Yes, of course, it sometimes makes sense for a woman to be the default caregiver or to take a step back from paid work, but we need to appreciate at what cost. This is 2021. Sometimes I wonder if we’re in the 1950s.”
IMAGE SOURCE: PIXABAY