Workplace

Men are dropping the ball at work: New study shows women do more emotional labor

The 2021 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey found that women are far more likely than men to help their teams manage time and work-life balance and provide emotional support.

A woman teleconferencing on a laptop in an office.

Senior leaders who identify as women were 60% more likely to provide emotional support to their teams and 26% more likely to help team members navigate work/life challenges, according to the report.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

Over the last year, emotional support, time management skills and work-life balance have become drastically more important and difficult in the workplace — and women leaders were far more likely than men to step in and do that work for their teams, according to the latest iteration of McKinsey and LeanIn.org's annual Women in the Workplace report.

Senior leaders who identify as women were 60% more likely to provide emotional support to their teams, 24% more likely to ensure their teams' workload is manageable and 26% more likely to help team members navigate work/life challenges, according to the report. In addition, about one in five women senior leaders spend a substantial amount of time on DEI work that is not central to their job, compared to less than one in 10 male senior leaders.

"I'm not so sure we thought we would find findings as strong as they were; I knew anecdotally that it was something that was happening," Rachel Thomas, the co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.org, told Protocol. "Women are showing up as stronger leaders. They're getting into the trenches, managing workloads, checking in, navigating the pandemic. We know that women often do invisible labor that doesn't get credited. That's what I think is so interesting, the constellation of areas where women are showing up as better leaders now," she said.

Previous iterations of the report haven't identified this trend likely because the data on emotional labor is tied to the "total reset" of work created by the pandemic in corporate environments, McKinsey's Lareina Yee, a leader in the workplace report research and the company's tech consulting sector, explained. "Women are doing far more of the emotional labor. So where are the guys?" she asked. "Companies are not a fair place if men hold two times the leadership roles and do less of the work."

While the report found that companies say they value employee well-being and mental health, most have not found ways to measure and reward the people who are doing the work in that area. 87% of companies reported that it is "very or extremely" critical that managers support employee well-being, and yet only 25% formally recognize this work "a substantial amount or great deal" in places like performance reviews and compensation. An almost identical pattern held true for people doing extra work for diversity, equity and inclusion. Yee hopes that companies will take this data and see it as an illustration of the gap between commitment and "operationalized" practical change.

There is also likely some tie between the data on the extra emotional work performed by women and the fact that 42% of women report being burnt out, compared to 35% of men. One in three women also said that they are considering downshifting their careers in response to the burnout.

Companies may fail to understand that their best talent will likely consider switching companies or even careers if they aren't rewarded and promoted for the extra and different work they've been doing over the last year. "That is on companies if they are not valuing it. They should not be surprised if women are pausing and reflecting. Women have totally stepped up during the pandemic, and now there are a lot of opportunities in the marketplace. They can take all that talent and bring it somewhere else," Thomas said. "If your performance metrics and soft incentives reward a profile of a leader from five years ago or a decade ago, that's not strategic. What's strategic is knowing what's going to matter going forward. You can turn a blind eye to it, but that's really only at your own peril."

The research also found that while tech worker roles have become pervasive across all industries, the same problems with representation of women in those roles have followed them from Silicon Valley. Only 34% of tech management roles are filled by women, and only 26% of SVPs in those areas are women, according to the report. "This is manufacturing, retail, health care, etc. It's so pervasive," Thomas said. "We don't want 2040 to look like 1980."

And to Yee, the most frustrating data point is likely the evidence that little has changed in terms of the daily experience of women of color in the workplace. While the rate of promotion for women of color to manager roles has increased by more than five percentage points, their experience of inclusion and welcoming culture has not.

"I am disappointed that we are not seeing progress in terms of day-to-day experience of women of color. Their judgement is questioned. They are talked over. Given the last year of focus on racial equity, given the real commitment of companies and of leaders to make change happen, it's not happening. We have to be pretty brutally honest about that," she said.

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