A new phenomenon is sweeping the workforce. Women leaders are voluntarily leaving their companies in droves, a wave that researchers at McKinsey and LeanIn.org refer to as “The Great Breakup.” Their annual “Women in the Workplace” survey of 40,000 women across the United States showed that 10.5% of women in leadership positions are leaving their jobs, a dramatic and sudden change from the roughly 7% of women leaders who quit in 2020.
The report shows that, for every woman in a director-level role who is promoted, two female employees at that level opt to leave their company.
This report found three main drivers of these departures. Many female leaders are looking for companies that provide:
- More flexibility and work-life balance;
- A strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and
- Increased opportunities for career advancement.
What is happening in today’s work environment to create this exodus? And how can companies reverse this “great breakup” while driving retention and growth among their female employees?
The Uphill Climb for Women Leaders
According to the Women in the Workplace Report, women remain consistently underrepresented in the top rungs of the corporate ladder. Looking at statistics on gender equality, the report shows that, in 2022, only one in four C-suite leaders in the U.S. was a woman.
Other marginalizing societal biases, such as racism, can have a compounding effect on women’s ability to advance. For example, only one in twenty of female leaders is a woman of color. These numbers show us that the road to the top of an organization is more challenging for women than men, and that the gender gap is more evident for non-white women.
Not only is it “lonely at the top” for women in leadership roles, it’s also quite “windy.” The same report from McKinsey and LeanIn shows that it is common for women leaders to face sexist microaggressions at work. Examples of this include being interrupted by male colleagues, being mistaken for a co-worker with a more junior role, unwelcome comments on appearance or demeanor, and implications that they are unqualified to lead. This is on top of direct discrimination that undermines female authority and prevents women from receiving raises and promotions.
Given how challenging the road to the top is for women in executive leadership, many are making big changes in search of an organization that better aligns with their priorities.
Priority #1: Flexible Work
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of people working primarily from home or remotely has tripled from nearly 9 million in 2019 to 27.6 million in 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of American workers have had at least a glimpse of a more flexible work setup.
We’ve also had the chance to study and learn more about the unintended benefits of flexible work arrangements. According to a 2021 survey from Gartner, flexible work hours are the biggest driver in increased productivity for digital employees. 43% of surveyed employees articulated that flexibility in working hours contributes to their increased productivity, while 30% attributed their productivity to little or no time spent commuting.
In a study from the Center for Creative Leadership, women shared that they are more willing to stay with their current employer if their job “fits well with other areas of their life.” This might mean enough paid time off to enjoy their family or non-work interests. It can also refer to flexible working hours or locations. Further, women reported that personally connecting with their work or the mission of the organization is a key factor in their job satisfaction.
Additionally, remote work decreases the chance of microaggressions, as the office holds serious potential for untoward and discriminatory behavior. Women, especially women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ women who face compounding discrimination, benefit from increased psychological safety through remote or hybrid working arrangements.
Moreover, we know that many employees value location flexibility. The same study from Gartner showed that 59% of digital workers would only consider a new role that allowed them to work in a location of their choosing.
Priority #2: Commitment to DEI Efforts
In the last decade, the business case for DEI has become even more clear. A focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion has striking productivity and financial advantages.
According to a 2021 survey from CNBC, 78% of polled employees said that an organization’s focus on diversity and inclusion was “important,” with 53% considering it to be “very important.” These numbers are higher among women than men, and even more so among non-white employees. The same study found that job satisfaction is strongly connected to employee perception of a company’s DEI efforts, as indicated by higher Workforce Happiness Index scores among workers who say that their organization is doing “about the right amount” and even “going too far” regarding their focus on DEI.
Women leaders are feeling burnt out from bearing the brunt of DEI-related work, and often going unacknowledged for this important work. While we know that DEI strategy increases employee satisfaction, retention, productivity, and even profitability, the labor related to building more equitable workplaces is often not formally rewarded.
In the aforementioned Women in the Workplace survey, 40% of participants shared that their DEI work isn’t accounted for, or even mentioned, in their performance reviews. These women leaders are spending valuable time and effort on these essential projects, and yet not receiving due credit which means they are potentially forgoing advancement opportunities. In response, women leaders are migrating to organizations that back up their DEI work with action and resources. A key component here is strategies and tools that support DEI efforts.
Given this data, it’s understandable that women at all levels are in search of an organization that prioritizes diversity and inclusion work.
Priority #3: Opportunities for Career Growth
Today’s employees are looking for better opportunities for growing their careers. The 2022 Global Talent Trends report from LinkedIn found that employees who make an internal move (either a lateral change or promotion) within the first two years are 19% more likely to stay at the company. This number demonstrates that if employees are not given the chance to grow, they will look elsewhere.
A study from the Center for Creative Leadership found that while women are just as interested in career advancement as their male counterparts, they run up against unique barriers. When being considered for a promotion, women are expected to be more qualified.
Julia Grassa, Head of Strategic Ops at Company, recounted that when she climbed the ladder quickly, she had a hard time shedding her image as an entry-level employee. “Sometimes you have to leave and go somewhere else to have a clean slate,” she posited. “That might be the reason why women are leaving. They’re the COO and being asked where the printer paper is.”
Career advancement is increasingly important for women. Survey authors from LeanIn and McKinsey write of the “broken rung” in the metaphorical career ladder. “For every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level to a manager, only 87 women are promoted.” When it comes to promoting to senior leadership roles, there are simply less women available for consideration.
Why Companies Should Prioritize Female Leadership
Differences in leadership styles among gender identity, while not inherently tied to gender, exist. Women leaders tend to be more empathetic, especially when it comes to decision-making. Empathy is defined as an ability to understand others’ perspectives. In the workplace, empathy can mean valuing the experiences and motivations of different employees and creating a culture that enables that.
According to a report from Catalyst, an empathetic work environment can bring not only more productivity to an organization, but also limit burnout, especially among women of color. Empathy can also help to retain senior leaders.
We might think of “masculine” leadership qualities as being more authoritarian, rigorous, and commanding compared to female leadership qualities, but these traits are not inherently superior, or inherently masculine. In an interview for Human Resources Director magazine, behavioral analyst Gianna Biscotini spoke of the common belief that women should demonstrate these “male characteristics” in order to get ahead.
However, while that top-down approach to leadership is often more forgiven or expected when men use it, female leaders with this style can be deemed too bossy, assertive, or overcompensating for lack of qualification.
Female leaders bring a more “holistic” approach to business that infuses empathy into the business model. Naomi Pikofsky, an executive-level people leader, remarks that women “look at the world in a different manner, we look at not just the bottom line, but how we get there and how to support the people that help us get there.”
Women tend to balance a culture of empathy with the business bottom line to create organizations that are both profitable and sustainable for their employees. “Focus on facts and feelings; quantitative and qualitative,” Pikofsky urges.
How Companies Can Encourage and Retain Women Leaders
In order to mitigate the “great breakup” and retain their women leaders, organizations and PeopleOps leaders can take several steps.
Implement and Encourage Flexible Work Arrangements
How can you design your organization to offer the most employee choice? For every organization, and every industry, there is a different answer. Are you able to offer flexible work hours or locations, even for part of the week? Are leaders taking advantage of flexible work and modeling this behavior?
Create and Sustain a Culture of Growth and Learning
Employees should feel a sense of possibility and upward mobility. A woman working in an organization where she does not see any females getting recognized or promoted will likely look for career advancement outside of the organization.
The key here is also not to single out women, but to give them equal access to career growth and learning that you would give men. Prioritize internal hires and publicly celebrate when all employees move within the organization. Offer robust learning opportunities through a learning management system. Develop leadership skills in all employees; treat each hire as a potential leader.
In particular, leaders can benefit from coaching. Kelsey Ley, a leadership and culture-building thought leader, argues that providing coaching support to all leaders can improve women’s experience in the workplace. “Women are doing the work. They have a lot of these uphill battles, like managing imposter syndrome and taking risks.” However, providing coaching support to men as well can have a positive impact on their female counterparts. “A coach can be a confidante, someone to help them navigate difficult changes, and hold them accountable and encourage progress.”
Develop, Follow Through, and Provide Updates on a Thorough DEI Strategy
Check out some diversity hiring tools to build out your recruiting plan, and be sure to advertise your job listings on a variety of job boards designed to attract diverse talent. Training and upskilling for current employees is another critical element of a DEI effort. This might include training on unconscious bias, microaggressions, bystander intervention, and more.
If you don’t already have a women’s Employee Resource Group (ERG) or related affinity group, consider starting one. Ensure that it has buy-in from senior management and be sure to promote it across your organization. While the leadership in your organization’s ERG should determine the specifics of its initiatives, consider proposing a mentorship program for female employees. Additionally, creating casual spaces for female co-workers to discuss issues and offer advice to each other can help to build community and networking opportunities.
Clarify and Codify Career Path and Promotion Systems
Employees at all levels should know how to advance to the next level in their organization. Performance reviews are critical times to give and receive feedback to help employees develop.
Make sure your internal employee knowledge base has information on what qualifications and skills are required for a promotion, as well as how to apply for other roles within the company. For those at the top of the ladder, be sure to create opportunities for open dialogue about goals. What would they like to accomplish in their career, and how can your company help them do that?
Evaluate Your Employee Benefits
Do your employee offerings match the priorities and desires of your employees? Do your healthcare benefits encourage and support a wide range of experiences like family planning, childcare support, foster care, mental health, and so forth?
Examine your current benefits to make sure they are relevant to your workforce. And, of course, it’s important to use current employee survey data and frequent pulse checks to identify other needs.
Women in leadership roles are leaving due to a shift in priorities. Many are moving to other organizations that offer more work flexibility, stronger efforts toward DEI, and clearer paths toward career development.
In order to keep these employees, and develop your company’s future leaders, it’s important to take stock of your existing DEI, benefits, and programs to make sure they are aligned with your current workforce’s needs. Creating a space where leaders of all backgrounds can grow and thrive is crucial to survival in today’s economy.