by Sarah K. White

Women in IT are burned out. The pandemic is making it worse.

Jun 04, 202114 mins
CareersDiversity and InclusionWomen in IT

COVID has compounded the disproportional stress women face in the IT workplace, putting careers at risk, as well as nearly a decade of progress toward gender equity.

A miserable, stressed laptop user holds her head in her hands.
Credit: PeopleImages / Getty Images

With the need to keep organizations humming through a global pandemic, this past year has placed considerable stress on IT professionals. Taken in total, however, the strains of adjusting to life and work under COVID-19 have fallen disproporationally on women in IT. 

A survey of 450 tech professionals by TrustRadius found that 57% of women report feeling burned out at work this year as a result of the pandemic, compared to 36% of men. Central to this has been an imbalance in added responsibilities due to the pandemic, both at home and in the workplace.

“I feel it for myself and I know my teams absolutely feel it too. It’s just this endless cycle of not being able to fully focus on your work for the period of time that you’re used to and it’s intermingled with added home [responsibilities] as well,” says Jadee Hanson, CIO and CISO of Code42.

Forty-three percent of women surveyed by TrustRadius report taking on extra responsibilities at work in the past year, compared to 33% of men. At home, 29% of women have taken on a greater childcare burden, versus 19% of men who said the same. And 42% of women have taken on the bulk of the housework during the pandemic, compared to 11% of men. 

Moreover, women have been twice as likely as men to have lost their jobs or been furloughed during the pandemic. All told, nearly 3 million American women have left the workforce, whether due to layoffs or having chosen to leave their jobs as a result of the added responsibilities.

Women have long felt pressure to maintain the bulk of childcare and homemaking duties on top of full-time work. The pandemic has only increased that burden. And it is accelerating burnout among a demographic that has of late pushed to make advances toward equality in the IT workplace. IT leaders must be aware of this dynamic and take steps to help mitigate the challenges faced by their female staff and colleagues.

Cascading effects of women leaving IT

According to the study Women in the Workplace from McKinsey, one in four women are contemplating “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This could set women back by nearly a decade in the workforce, leaving fewer women in leadership positions or on the leadership track, undoing years of progress, according to McKinsey.  

Jadee Hanson, CIO and CISO, Code42 Code42

Jadee Hanson, CIO and CISO, Code42

Code42’s Hanson sees this trend having a significant impact on gender diversity in IT.

“We’ve been slowly making strides to equality in the workforce,” Hanson says. “Since the pandemic, we’ve seen women leaving the workforce at a much higher rate. Which is sad and scary because our workforce is not going to look quite the same. It’s going to be a lot less diverse if women keep opting to pull themselves out of working in this industry.”

Worse, losing representation of women in IT, especially at the leadership level, will only exacerbate burnout. A study from Girls in Tech found that 63% of its member respondents with a male supervisor report feeling burned out, compared to 44% of those with a female supervisor. And when the CEO of a company is male, 85% of respondents report feeling burned out, while only 15% say the same when the CEO is a woman.

Michelle Bailey, CEO, Women In Technology International (WITI) Women In Technology International (WITI)

Michelle Bailey, CEO, Women In Technology International (WITI)

“We’ve gone backwards. We have less than half the rate of women enrolling in technical courses at school and, at the same time, the opportunity is vast,” says Michelle Bailey, CEO at Women In Technology International (WITI). “And yet we just have failed to engage women.”

Bailey says the tech industry as a whole needs to engage in serious change management and that programs and initiaitives aren’t enough. Companies need to consider employees’ home lives, their ability to take time off beyond maternity and paternity leave, and they need to create paths for upward mobility in the organization, she says, pointing to how the medical industry, which doesn’t have the same gender disparity, offers opportunities beyond being a doctor or nurse as well as more flexible scheduling options and better resources to balance work and personal life.

The pressure of feeling a need to prove yourself

With gender imbalances still an issue in IT and in leadership positions, women already feel they need to do more to be seen as equal in the workplace. Survey data from TrustRadius shows that 78% of women feel they must work harder than their coworkers to prove their worth.

Dr. Maya Dillon, PhD, vice president of growth and innovation, Corsight AI Corsight AI

Dr. Maya Dillon, PhD, vice president of growth and innovation, Corsight AI

Dr. Maya Dillon, PhD, vice president of growth and innovation at Corsight AI, says she has experienced burnout several times in her career and has felt the need to prove herself in a male-dominated field.

“I’ve experienced it myself a little bit in roles where I was basically pushing myself too much to do the long hours and to try and balance the work-home life,” she says. “The other thing I was doing was trying to be better than my male counterparts, so that I could actually succeed. Because, you know, I’m one or two or three or four of women in a large group of a male-orientated environment, and I had to really show myself off in order to get that career progression.”

She felt that pressure more than ever during a client meeting as the only woman among 12 men. After introducting herself and demonstrating her credibility by sharing that she has a PhD in astrophysics, the room quickly turned competitive and “raucous,” she says, and she felt her voice was being drowned out by the men in the room.

“I found myself pushing to actually talk — I felt that I would be interrupting somebody, I felt if I was to actually state a point, then maybe I would be stepping on someone’s toes. But as time went on, I realized my opinions are just as valid as everybody else and the reason I mentioned my title was to share my credibility and experience to reassure the customer,” she says.

Experiences like these make women feel they need to push harder to have their voices heard. In moments like these, allyship is critical, Dr. Dillon says. If even one person in that meeting spoke up to get everyone back on track, or had there been a better balance of men and women in the room, it would have been a less chaotic environment, she says, one in which she wouldn’t have had to second-guess herself.

The pandemic has only increased this pressure. And, according to McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report, organizations are failing to shift expectations and goals in response, compounding the likelihood of burnout, especially for women. Less than 30% of companies have adjusted performance reviews criteria to balance out the added stress and pressure created by the pandemic, McKinsey has found. Only half of companies surveyed report updating employees on performance expectations through the pandemic. As the report points out, this leaves many employees, especially parents and caregivers, in a situation where they can’t live up to pre-pandemic expectations.  

Modeling a healthy balance

In hopes of avoiding the burnout of talented women at Code42, Hanson pushes for flexibility, encouraging team members to work when they can, especially those with children at home.

“I feel like for a long time women thought they had to make a trade-off between being a great mom or being a great employee, and the one thing that I talked to my team about is that you can do both,” says Hanson, who models this herself. For example, if she’s in a meeting and her kids need attention, Hanson says she will quickly excuse herself and come back to the meeting once things are resolved.

Dina Bruzek, senior vice president of engineering, Huntress Huntress

Dina Bruzek, senior vice president of engineering, Huntress

Dina Bruzek, senior vice president of engineering at Huntress, agrees that leaders should model work-life balance to reinforce that the company wants employees to take their mental and physical health seriously. Doing so sends a clear message that it’s not just lip-service. 

One way Bruzek demonstrates that her employees can put themselves first when they need to  is by dedicating time on Tuesday afternoons to herself, blocking this time off on her calendar and working around it as necessary.

“People hear what you say but then they watch what you do. And they are going to pay attention to what you actually do and they’re going to see if it’s different,” Bruzek says. “It’s about priorities and making sure people understand that it’s okay if not everything is done, and with things that have to get done, [it’s about] making sure that they have the help that they need.”

If you do feel you need additional support, you probably aren’t the only one feeling that way. Dr. Dillon says that, in her experience, when she’s needed extra support at work, she’s often found that her male colleagues feel similarly but aren’t as comfortable speaking up to ask for help. For men, it can be seen as a “sign of weakness,” she says, and by being the one to speak up and say you need help and support, you can help break that taboo and bridge that gap in communication.

Easing the burden with supportive leadership

The best way to ensure the women on your team aren’t heading toward burnout is to simply check in with them. If an employee’s performance starts slipping, or they aren’t as productive as they used to be, that might be a sign they need to ease up or shift gears.  

One downside of virtual work during the pandemic is it can be harder to spot signs of burnout if you aren’t getting face-to-face time with staff. Code42’s Hanson schedules weekly virtual check-ins with her employees, to connect one-on-one and see how whether there are any cues of potential stress or burnout. If an employee indicates they need a break, Hanson works with them to figure out what can be taken off their plate, how they can reprioritize their workload, and what else can be done to make things easier.

Hanson also encourages her employees to rethink how they get work done so they can fit it into their schedules. If that means getting work done late at night when you have fewer responsibilities, then that is something management will support. To help, the company has also increased its PTO allotment and given employees three additional mental health days on top of their regular PTO. Approaches such as these are vital to staving off burnout among women in IT, as nearly two-thirds of respondents to TrustRadius’ survey cite flexible scheduling as a key way organizations can support women in the workplace, especially at this time.

Huntress’s Bruzek also points to a need for a shift in societal thinking — one that puts less responsibility and pressure on women, while expecting them to perform at the same level as their male counterparts who don’t report the same added responsibilities at home or work that women do. Burnout for women in IT could be further improved with better access to affordable childcare options, more support for single mothers, and longer paid maternity leave to help “women get the balance they need,” she says. The majority of respondents to TrustRadius survey (55%) believe that offering equal maternity and paternity leave could help alleviate some of the responsibilities traditionally placed solely on women.

Bruzek herself has navigated burnout at work, and when she recognizes she’s about to hit a wall, she relies on pacing herself and finding ways to recharge whenever she can. Perhaps most of all, however, she attributes her ability to combat burnout to strong management teams that support and believe her when it comes to her need to shift gears.

Code42’s Hanson also sees supportive leadership as key in avoiding burnout. Prior to the pandemic, she made the difficult decision to take a short leave of absence to support her family after her daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability. Managing the logistics around finding support for her daughter was too much to balance alongside work, but she was plagued with doubt about how stepping back might impact her work and career. Ultimately the choice to prioritize her family paid off, she says, and she was able to smoothly transition back into work after her family was in an easier place.

Khyati Ganatra, a data scientist, Cequence Security Cequence Security

Khyati Ganatra, a data scientist, Cequence Security

Khyati Ganatra, a data scientist at Cequence Security, says her company has seen a few women step down from their positions to prioritize their family or children during the pandemic. But it’s something the company encourages and supports, keeping jobs open for these women when they return. By helping women feel supported and heard, IT leaders and their organization can not only help reduce the likelihood of burnout, they can also inspire loyalty that can in turn improve retention.

Establishing better leadership equity

Still, when it comes to supporting women in the IT workplace, representation matters. In the TrustRadius survey, when asked about how companies can support women, 78% say they should promote more women into leadership positions.

“It’s about taking a look at the entire system, and just admitting that it is important to have more representation, because it’s going to change our business,” Bailey says. “Tech is a rich profitable industry and there’s no reason why tech can’t lead the change in the workforce. And it’s not just about having more [women]; it’s about putting in place long-term changes in the way that the workplace is structured.”

Having more women and diversity on your board of directors is important, Bailey says, as top-level equity tends to trickle down throughout the organization. There also needs to be better opportunities for women to network and find mentorship and sponsorship opportunities. As more women move into leadership positions, they can help inspire and empower other women in the organization to help drive the cultural changes that need to happen at a fundamental level across the industry.

“The more representation you have, the more you can see yourself growing in a company,” she says. “We have that in all of our data; it is proven time and again that if you can see yourself growing, and the potential of the organization, you’re going to be more engaged, and you’re going to stay there.”