The Great Breakup: why women in leadership are leaving, what it costs organizations, and what to do about it

Each year, McKinsey and LeanIn.org release a joint survey of women in corporate America to learn how women who work in various fields and across all experience levels tackle the challenges of growth, career development, and leadership. 

This fall, their research rings an alarm, showing that women in leadership positions are leaving their workplaces en masse. 

The timing of McKinsey’s survey ironically matched one of the biggest step-downs by a female leader: that of Liz Truss, the UK’s prime minister, who left the office after only 50 days in charge. 

Earlier this year, another female leader drew media attention with her resignation: Sheryl Sandberg. The now-former COO of Meta left the company this summer, leaving a legacy of a successful decade-long track record and the title of the “most important woman in tech”. 

What do research data and anecdotal evidence reveal about the pressures of being a female leader? Why are women leaving the workforce? What long-term impact should organizations expect if the trend continues? What steps should they take to empower and unburden women in management? 

We’ll try to answer these questions in an in-depth rundown on “The Great Breakup”. 

Identifying the problem

The intrinsic lack of ambition and desire to fill in senior management positions is often attributed to women in the workforce. 

Data shows it is not the case – in the last two years alone, working women have reevaluated their career priorities and have become more eager to embrace leadership. In 2020, 31% of surveyed female leaders prioritized career development, in 20222 – 58% do so. 

Millennials and Gen Z are exceptionally power-hungry and choose their workplaces with career advancement in mind. 

Yet, for women in the workplace, each win for leadership representation comes with losses. Statistically, for one female leader hired, two leave their organizations voluntarily. This turnover rate leaves women chronically underrepresented in leadership – McKinsey states that only one in four leaders is a woman. 

What pressures and challenges are the most impactful for women in the workplace? Statistics point to several factors at play: 

  • Discrimination and microaggressions are part of career development. One of the reasons women have a shorter leadership “shelf life” is the struggle they face to get to that level. Women are likelier than men to be seen as underqualified and twice as likely to be mistaken for juniors. The situation is aggravated for LGBTQ+ executives, who are even likelier to get judgemental comments on their looks and demeanor. 
  • Commitment to DEI is not seen as a priority. Having struggled with low workplace diversity and representation, female leaders have the resolve and ability to change it. Statistically, female leaders are likelier to commit to encouraging diversity and inclusion, prioritize employee wellness, and reduce work-related stress. Yet, rigid and revenue-oriented KPIs let this effort go unnoticed and require female leaders to perform a delicate balancing act of hitting unrealistic business quotas while ensuring job satisfaction on their teams. As the result, workplace stress levels are higher for female leaders than their male counterparts. 
  • Back-to-office shift is not favoring female leaders. For women in executive roles, remote and hybrid arrangements were helpful in avoiding microaggressions and ensuring psychological safety. Yet, most companies in corporate America are urging their teams back to offices, so women in the office lose the advantage of flexibility and equal footing. It’s worth noting that, with all its benefits, remote and hybrid roles are still more comfortable for men than for women, who feel the pressure of “working a double shift” at home. The burdens of home chores and childcare are heavily borne by women, leaving them with fewer opportunities for focused and uninterrupted work. 
  • Appearance-related pressures. As they embrace leadership roles, women are more pressured, than men, to look the part. A leader surveyed by McKinsey reveals she was hinted with the need to develop an “executive presence” – an opaque term telling female executives to pay more attention to the way they dress or the elegance of their behavior. 

Understanding the impact of losing women in leadership

During the pandemic, over 55 million women left the workforce, driven out by layoffs or the pressure to take care of their families. The impact of that mass exodus followed suit – and was disastrous in many aspects. Here’s how organizations were affected by the resignations of female leaders. 

  • Loss of compassionate and wise managers. According to an assessment performed by HBR contributors, female leaders rank twice as high in compassion as male managers – 55% of women and leadership were seen as “wise and compassionate” whereas 56% of male executives were reported to lack either trait.
  • Higher burnout and stress levels in teams. Last year’s McKinsey survey of women in leadership found that subordinates see female leaders as more apt in providing emotional support (12% more than men), managing burnout (5% more than men), and stepping in to alleviate stress (7% more than men). 
  • Productivity and engagement losses. Studies based on the pre-pandemic data show that, even past a crisis, teams led by women are more productive and engaged than those managed by men, regardless of whether the reports are men or women. According to Gallup, the loss of engagement costs organizations $3400 for every $100,000 in salary in lost productivity. Thus, by embracing leadership positions, women saved their workplaces thousands of dollars per year. 
  • Lack of diversity in board decisions. Missing out on female leadership results in organizations overlooking major issues in their strategic planning. According to research released by The Rockefeller Foundation, women in leadership roles are likelier to tackle workplace policy and make active changes to their workplaces. Conversely, not having enough women on board, can result in stagnation and keep organizations stuck in their ways. 
  • Creating a vicious circle of underrepresentation. Having female role models is crucial for inspiring younger female workers to strive for career development. ⅔ of surveyed Americans believe that having women in leadership will empower more employees to seek executive positions, while chronic underrepresentation will keep women struggling to trail their path in the executive world. 

Building a framework that supports women in leadership

Watching female leaders resign led some to question their aptitude for management positions. However, instead of shifting the blame, we should recognize the hurdles women are facing in the workplace and help them overcome these barriers. 

Here’s a four-step framework that can help empower career advancement among aspiring female leaders and prolong their tenures in management. 

Step #1. Being mindful of gender equality in the workplace

Increasing the number of female voices on the board will make it easier for new leaders to find understanding and make allies in the workplace. 

Instead of being a part of the “Onlys” group (defined by McKinsey in 2020 as the employees that don’t fit the standard profile), female leaders should be able to find support by being surrounded by other women. 

Here’s how companies can increase female representation on the board: 

  • Build a career development plan for young female workers that includes management-level promotions. 
  • Challenge the “likeability penalty, wherein competent women seem not as nice as skilled male leaders. It’s typical for men who promote their ideas to be considered confident and assertive – when women do the same, they risk coming across as unlikeable or aggressive. 

In an article on gender equity, LeanIn.org references a Columbia Business School study that asked participants to evaluate two executive profiles. They were identical in all but gender. Those surveyed described the male leader Howard as confident and skillful, whereas the female executive Heidi was seen as “a person you wouldn’t want to work for”. 

  • Give men and women equal access to mentorship. Studies show that women in the workforce are less likely to be recommended for leadership training than their male counterparts. Lack of mentorship and networking opportunities hinders their prospects and keeps the playing field un-leveled. 

Step #2. Implement family-friendly work policies

Century-old gender norms put more pressure on women in taking care of the household and the children. The progress in evenly splitting household responsibilities is there but slow. 

That’s why one of the most effective ways to enable career growth and reduce stress levels female leaders are forced to face is designing flexible work policies. If organizations are committed to supporting their workforces, they should build an environment that does not interfere with other responsibilities, like parenting. This will favor not only female leaders but men as well, helping both working parents be equally present at work and at home. 

Here are a few actionable ways to create a workplace that supports female leaders in their day-to-day work. 

  • Prioritize flexibility. Remote and hybrid work schedules will give female managers more room for maneuvering and allow them to not give up career opportunities for the sake of family commitments. 
  • Add childcare support to the list of employee perks. Providing working parents with high-quality childcare will help reduce after-work stress and increase job satisfaction. Supporting families with on-site childcare facilities, vouchers, or paid leaves will positively impact both men and women – but, as the main carriers of the childcare burden, female leaders will be especially empowered by childcare support.
  • Encourage openness about family life. Studies show that men are more successful in “sneaking through the back door” – concealing the need to leave work for family commitments. Encouraging open discussions around need for family time in the organization will normalize commitments outside of work and lift the stigma that sees women only as absorbed by childcare and housework. 

Step #3. Collect feedback from women in leadership and act on it

Scarce representation puts the women who made their way up to leadership roles under tremendous pressure to succeed. 

They are usually well aware of being the torch-bearers for the next generation of female management and feel the need to prove their value. As the result, female leaders might seek to not speak up about their concerns since they can be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

As the result, women have to face challenges with no support from the organization, putting themselves at higher odds of burnout. 

Organizations can put female leaders at ease about sharing their concerns by normalizing feedback sharing and swiftly acting on the feedback they are provided with.

The following practices will help foster a sharing culture in the workplace: 

  • Run regular surveys that help female leaders share the difficulties they are sharing in the workplace and suggest actionable workarounds to implement within the organization. 
  • Set clear goals for gender diversity in the workplace and keep your organization accountable. During town halls and other all-company events, set the time aside to share and celebrate your DEI milestones. 
  • Encourage male leaders to openly speak up about their challenges – stress, burnout, communication difficulties – to normalize open sharing. 

Step #4. Be clear in discussing career development with women in your organization

The struggle of having to accept vague excuses like “there are doubts about your long-term fit”, ‘not sufficient executive presence”, and “questionable professionalism” puts female leaders under pressure of having to be perfect and over-prepare for meetings in order to fit in predominantly male workplaces. 

When they are denied a promotion and given an opaque explanation, aspiring female leaders are not clear on what they did wrong and have no direction for professional development. 

Bringing clarity to the discussion table is a way for C-level leaders can promote constructive dialogue and empower female leaders. Here are the ways to make workplace communication more straightforward: 

  • Set easy-to-measure quantitative KPIs that determine if an employee (male or female) is fit for promotion. 
  • Center your feedback around strengths and growth opportunities, not weaknesses and shortcomings. 
  • Create ongoing discussions. After you shared clear, transparent feedback with female employees, make sure you keep the conversation going and schedule regular follow-up calls to assist team managers in your organization whenever they feel challenged. 

FAQ

Why female leaders are leaving the workforce?

Women in management leave their workplaces not because they no longer want to work. Rather, they discovered it was difficult or impossible to achieve their professional ambitions with their current employee and decided to look for new opportunities.

How to promote gender equality in the workplace?

Leaders should take proactive steps toward establishing an inclusive workplace. Here are the ways to create a discrimination-free workplace:

  • Focus on creating a diverse board and put diversity on the list of hiring goals
  • Adopt family-friendly work policies
  • Offer hybrid and remote work opportunities
  • Be clear and transparent in evaluating employee performance and sharing feedback

What are the tips female leaders should follow to improve their longevity in leadership positions?

  • Ask for clear feedback and a defined career plan
  • Advocate for the right to mentorship programs and leadership training
  • Connect with other female leaders to share tips and knowledge
  • Be vocal about the challenges they are facing to give C-levels an opportunity to make change

The Bottom Line

The mass exodus of female leaders is a warning sign for corporate America. Whatever the cause is – not feeling represented and supported, being driven out by the lack of flexibility, or having too much on their plates by trying to balance business and DEI goals – companies need to take action unless they want to lose capable and compassionate leaders. 

Building a flexible environment creates fewer opportunities for discrimination, microaggressions, and workplace inequality. At oVice, we are committed to leveling the playing field between male and female executives and empowering female leadership. 

Recently, we partnered with SheLovesTech: a foundation that trains, supports, and brings women in startups together. 

Other than that, we make sure that companies can stay flexible as they come out of the pandemic, by supporting hybrid and remote workplaces with flexible virtual office spaces. 
Find out how oVice streamlines hybrid and remote operations by browsing through our customer stories. To see the platform for yourself, take a tour of our demo space.

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