Women, Work, and Mental Health

The need to make work work for women is not a new issue.

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What does a recent study from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org suggest about US workplace efforts to evolve the way we work so that work supports women’s mental health?


Women are Exiting the Workforce in Droves. The 2022 Women in the Workplace Report, conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org, is the largest study of women in corporate America. Drawing its sample from 333 participating organizations and surveying more than 40,000 employees, the study reports that more than 12 million women left their jobs during the early stages of the pandemic, and the workforce has yet to recover. Women are demanding more from their workplaces and are leaving companies in unprecedented numbers to get it. The reasons are intimately linked to mental health and well-being. They are also fixable. What can organizations do?


Provide Paid Parental Leave. Mothers, fathers, and infants benefit when families have paid parental leave. Paid family leave is associated with decreased psychological distress among parents and a reduction in symptoms of depression by nearly 30% among mothers with infants. As I have noted before, the United States is counted among only seven member countries of the United Nations that do not require employers to provide paid time off for new parents. Of those seven, which also include Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga, the US is the only high-income country. Paid parental leave for dads will help moms, too. Until men start taking paid paternity leave, women will be penalized for taking paid maternity leave in the form of lower pay and fewer subsequent promotions.


Address Childcare Needs. Childcare is one of the highest costs for families with children. If we truly care about women’s inclusion in the workplace, we need workplaces to support quality childcare. Taking a long-term view, companies will find that childcare programs are less expensive than attrition rates caused by women opting out of work due to deficient childcare options. According to a 2022 report by Marshall Plan for Moms in conjunction with McKinsey, nearly half of the women who left the workforce during the pandemic cited childcare as one of the main reasons and 83% reported that childcare benefits are a priority in considering employment options. When women leave the workforce, organizations suffer – they lose employees with significant institutional knowledge and managerial capabilities, who actively provide mentorship to young people entering the workforce.


Improve Organizational Culture. As noted in the 2022 Women in the Workplace Report, women leaders are more likely than their male peers to contribute to organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Successful DEI programs dramatically improve retention and employee satisfaction and are proudly touted by organizations. As much as they are valued headlines, this work is often not recognized or valued in individual performance reviews. Spending time and energy on work that isn’t recognized is all too familiar for women. In the workplace, it leads to increased distress and burnout and reduced opportunities for advancement. Women leaders in this study were 1.5 times more likely than male leaders to report changing jobs in the past two years because they wanted to work for companies committed to employee well-being and DEI. The next generation of women leaders considers these factors even more important. These data should serve as a clarion for organizations that aspire to create inclusive cultures and attract and retain a diverse workforce.


Close the Gender Wage Gap. According to Pew Research on ‘The Enduring Grip of the Gender Pay Gapthis gap has barely budged in the past decade. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Ten years ago, women earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. In 2017, the UK government introduced legislation requiring companies with more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap by April 4th  each year. The results are not pretty. The good news is that studies are emerging which document the positive effect of pay transparency laws on reducing pay inequities across gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other dimensions.

Work can provide enhanced purpose, meaning, mental health, and psychological well-being. For that to be true for women, we need to stop focusing on how to make women more successful at work and start focusing on how to make workplaces work for women.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
[email protected]