Women are burning out doing invisible ‘office housework’

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Women say extra evening, weekend and vacation hours spent supporting colleagues is ignored.
  • Burnout is increasing, finds the Women in the Workplace 2021 report.
  • Employers say they hugely value this wellbeing and inclusion work – but only a quarter formally recognize it.

Women are working harder – and getting more burned out – but their efforts are being overlooked, according to a new study.

COVID-19 has seen women take on extra work supporting the wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion of their colleagues. But it’s “invisible” labour – because companies aren’t recognizing or rewarding it.

This is a key finding of the Women in the Workplace 2021 report, by management consultancy McKinsey & Company and the women’s campaign group LeanIn.Org.

“This mission-critical work is in danger of being relegated to ‘office housework’: Necessary tasks and activities that benefit the company but go unrecognized, are underappreciated, and don’t lead to career advancement,” says report co-author Marianne Cooper in an article for management magazine Harvard Business Review.

a chart showing that women at work are managing more “emotional labour”
Women at work are managing more “emotional labour”. Image: Women in the Workplace 2021, McKinsey & Company/LeanIn.org

Unrecognized and unrewarded

Women leaders are more likely to be exhausted and chronically stressed at work, compared to men in similar roles, Cooper notes.

And almost 40% of them have considered quitting work altogether, or downshifting to part-time hours.

a chart showing that more women report feeling burned out often or almost always.
More women report feeling burned out often or almost always. Image: Women in the Workplace 2021, McKinsey & Company/LeanIn.org

Yet almost seven in 10 companies say the work employees do to promote diversity, inclusion and equity – opportunities for all – is “very” or “extremely critical”.

Women managers quoted in the Women in the Workplace report say they are doing this “emotional labour” “after hours in the evenings, on weekends and on vacation” – but it’s being “taken for granted,” with no formal recognition.

The report states that less than a quarter of companies are recognizing this work to a substantial extent in formal evaluations like performance reviews.

a chart showing that the work women do to support wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion is seen as vital – but is only formally recognized by about a quarter of companies.
The work women do to support wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion is seen as vital – but is only formally recognized by about a quarter of companies. Image: Women in the Workplace 2021, McKinsey & Company/LeanIn.org

Fewer women at the top

Women in the Workplace 2021 also finds that women – especially women of colour – are still significantly underrepresented in leadership roles.

For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. And women of colour represent only 4% of “C-suite” leaders – executive-level managers who typically have the word “chief” in their job title.

Women in the Workplace 2021 is based on information from 423 participating organizations with 12 million employees and a survey of more than 65,000 employees. The authors also interviewed women with diverse colour, gender and disability identities.

a chart showing how women are still underrepresented in management, with only 4% of women of colour
Women are still underrepresented in management, with only 4% of women of colour. Image: Women in the Workplace 2021, McKinsey & Company/LeanIn.org

Women’s gender gap widens

The Women in the Workplace 2021 findings mirror those of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021. It found the impact of COVID-19 had delayed the likely timetable to gender parity by a generation, from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

The gap is almost twice this length when measured by participation and opportunity for women in the world of work. On this measure, it will take another 267.6 years to close the gender gap, the Forum found, with only “marginal” improvement since last year’s report.

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