As women around the world celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, a startling reality sunk in – there has been an exodus of women from the workforce. Forty-seven million women—the equivalent of the entire country of Spain—have dropped out of the labor force because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Nations.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly jobs report indicates that the economy gained 916,000 net jobs in March 2021. Women accounted for only 34.4% of that gain, acquiring 315,000 jobs compared to 601,000 jobs for men. The National Women’s Law Center, citing the data, said women would need nearly 15 consecutive months of job gains at March levels to recover the more than 4.6 million net jobs lost since February 2020. In response to these staggering numbers, LeanIn.org founder and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said, “If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it….”
In October 2020, Sandberg’s LeanIn.org, together with McKinsey & Company, reported on their Women in the Workplace 2020 study. Launched in 2015, this is the largest comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America, with data and insights from 317 companies employing more than 12 million people, along with survey responses from more than 40,000 individual employees.
What does the research say?
The report, compiled by Rachel Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.org, and Lareina Yee of McKinsey, found that 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. This unthinkable reality could not have been considered before COVID-19.
At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. Between 2015 and 2020, the share of women in senior vice president roles grew from 23% to 28%—and from 17% to 21% in the C-suite (executive-level managers within a company).
But since the start of the pandemic, this is the first time the study has seen women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men. In the previous five years, women and men left their companies at similar rates.
“All the progress we’ve seen over the past five years would be erased,” Thomas said.