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Working women face 'perfect storm,' study finds

The female workforce is under severe strain, and employers don't do enough to retain talent or support work-life balance, women tell researchers.
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WASHINGTON — Women's workloads — at home and on the job — have grown, their mental health has suffered, and their allies among employers are few, according to a new study from Deloitte out Wednesday and reported first by NBC News.

The results of the study, which surveyed 5,000 women over 10 countries from November to March, underscore the "perfect storm" raging against working women over the last year of the coronavirus pandemic. It comes against the backdrop of an economic recovery still skewed against female workers, especially women of color.

"Women are telling us they feel overwhelmed and burnt out," said Emma Codd, global inclusion leader for Deloitte. "They're telling us they on the whole do not feel their employers' support has been sufficient, and many feel unable to switch off from work."

"I think at a lot of places, employees — and especially women — have to take steps to make it seem like their family never gets in the way of their work, and vice versa. I think there's a lot of pressure on women to work like there's no other consideration."

The data underscore months of reporting and statistics about a female workforce under severe strain and employers who don't do enough to retain their talents or account for the increasingly blurred lines between work and home life due to the pandemic.

Nearly 8 in 10 women surveyed said their workloads had increased since the pandemic began, but so did their responsibilities at home. Most women described feeling as if they always had to be "on" for work, with only 22 percent saying they feel their employers have helped them establish clear boundaries between work and personal time. Job satisfaction, according to the survey, dropped by 29 points over the pandemic, with women considering opting out of their workplaces — or the workforce entirely — in troublingly large numbers.

More than half of the women surveyed (51 percent) are less optimistic about their careers than they were before the pandemic. Overall, 57 percent of women — nearly 60 percent for women of color — plan to leave their workplaces in the next two year or less, while 21 percent say they will leave sooner than that, all citing lack of work-life balance. Nearly 1 in 4 women are considering leaving the workforce altogether.

In large part because of the pulls in opposite directions between work and home responsibilities, working women's mental health has suffered. Only one-third of women polled by Deloitte described their mental health as "good" or "extremely good"— a stark shift from the 68 percent who described their mental health positively before the pandemic.

Julia Martin, a Maryland mother of two, sees herself in the data. While her job as a legislative director has allowed her flexibility, she and her husband have been juggling their work needs with their families' needs while schools and child care centers haven't reliably been open and operating in-person.

"Everyone's mental health has taken a toll," she said. "I think especially parents feel like there's no good choices for us. We just have to choose from a series of possibly bad choices and hope for the best. And that is absolutely stressful and distressing."

But old pressures and gender stigmas persist, aggravated by the pandemic.

"I think at a lot of places, employees — and especially women — have to take steps to make it seem like their family never gets in the way of their work, and vice versa," she said. "I think there's a lot of pressure on women to work like there's no other consideration."

The reality laid bare by Covid-19 is that there are, and always have been, many other considerations for working parents, especially mothers.

Angelica Gonzalez Acosta Torres also wasn't new to the delicate balancing act of parenthood and professional responsibilities. Acosta Torres, a mother of three in Washington state — with a fourth on the way — was already juggling her job with child care and law school on top of that. When the pandemic hit, she was one of millions of parents whose delicate balancing acts were upended.

"In the beginning of the pandemic, when you're in isolation, you don't know what's happening in other households or with other women. You feel very alone," she said. "And all of a sudden you have all of these things on your shoulder, overnight. It was hard. It was really hard, and I think the majority of America knows what I'm talking about."

Fortunately, her law firm was supportive of her need for more flexibility. "If you need to take a break for a while and come back," she described their internal conversations, "you're not going to lose your job."

But only 4 percent of women polled by Deloitte described working for employers who were "gender equality leaders" — in workplaces with inclusive and trusting cultures where women feel supported and their talents are more likely to be retained.

As workplaces reopen in the pending post-pandemic limbo, many of the women surveyed — as well as the women NBC News spoke to — emphasized the need for flexibility from employers, especially for female employees. Nearly a quarter of women surveyed say better child care/caregiving support, short-term sabbaticals and better resources to support their mental health are the top three things companies can do to keep them.

"This is about embedding flexible working as the norm," said Codd of Deloitte. "It's about leaders' embracing it. It's about knowing that working differently to what may be the norm is still successful. And it's about not judging on presenteeism. It's about judging on outputs."

Ultimately, that's a question with answers in company policy — but also in culture.

"It's not just about having one person at a company that's willing to talk with women," Acosta Torres said. "You need a culture of the company to care about women, to realize that there's some difficulties going on and to think about these things."