Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

More than a quarter of women in a survey of over 40,000 say they are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely, as the coronavirus pandemic has intensified challenges many already faced at work, a study by McKinsey & Company and Lean In shows.

Why it matters: It's an "emergency for corporate America," the report, which covers the U.S. and Canada, said. The pandemic's disproportionate impact on women threatens to erode years of progress in representation in the workforce, while widening the gender pay gap.

The big picture: This is the first time in the six years of analyzing the issue that McKinsey has seen signs of women exiting the workforce at higher rates than men, the firm wrote.

  • "If these women feel forced to leave the workforce, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership — and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. All the progress we’ve seen over the past six years would be erased," the report states.
  • It's especially of concern, McKinsey notes, because the firm's research indicates that companies in which women are well-represented in leadership are 50% more likely to outperform their peers.

The issue is more pronounced with mothers, for whom research shows the pandemic has taken an even heavier toll. Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for the majority of housework and caregiving, according to the study.

  • They’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an extra three hours per day or more on housework and childcare — amounting to 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job.
  • 76% of mothers with children under age 10 say childcare has been among their top three challenges during the pandemic, compared with 54% of fathers.

Zoom in: The research indicates Latina and Black mothers — who are more likely to be their family's only breadwinners or to have partners working outside the home during the pandemic — face a greater burden than their white counterparts.

  • Latina moms are 1.6 times more likely to be responsible for all childcare and housework, while Black moms are twice as likely.

These burdens are compounded by the fact that "[m]others also face persistent bias in the workplace," McKinsey writes.

  • "There’s a false perception that mothers can’t be truly invested in both family and work, and are therefore less committed than fathers and women without children."

Yes, but: Companies say they are more committed to gender diversity than they were in 2015, the first year the study was conducted.

  • "That commitment is more important than ever right now. If companies rise to the moment with bold action, they can protect hard-won gains in gender diversity and lay the foundation for a better workplace long after Covid-19 is behind us," the report states.

More than 40,000 employees and 317 companies participated in the study.

Our thought bubble via Axios' Dion Rabouin: This report is particularly worrisome because women's representation in the labor force has been trending backwards since 2000 and has still not recovered from its drop after the 2008 Great Recession. In August, women's labor force participation rate was the lowest it has been since the late 1980s.

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