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The great breakup: Why are female leaders leaving in droves?

As a former executive, I completely understand why women are telling their employers, “It’s not you. It’s me,” as they exit out the door. Who wants to spend energy explaining the real reason they are leaving when they know nothing will change? Best to make a clean break.

Roberta Matuson
Roberta Matuson

Roberta has spent 20 years helping organizations achieve both market leadership and dynamic growth.

Women leaders are breaking up with their employers at the highest rates we’ve ever seen, and aspiring young women are prepared to do the same. This is according to McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace report, in partnership with LeanIn.Org.

The spike in departures comes as employees re-think what they want from their careers after COVID-19 lockdowns, with more women selecting flexibility and well-being.

Women are already significantly underrepresented in leadership. Now, companies are hanging on by a thread to hold onto the relatively few women leaders they have. These dynamics are even more pronounced for women of color.

Why this matters: According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile—up from 21 percent in 2017 and 15 percent in 2014.

Bottom line: Gender diversity pays dividends.

Why women are leaving

Women are tired of running against headwinds. At every corner, it feels like the wind is picking up. When considered for a promotion, women are more likely to be questioned about their qualifications than their male counterparts. Assumptions are made that now is not a good time for them to take on more responsibility. This assumption is never a consideration for men.

Women leaders are being discounted. Imagine someone else getting credit for some of your best ideas? Women leaders don’t have to imagine this. It’s their reality. According to the report, women leaders are twice as likely as men to be mistaken for someone less senior, and are more likely to see a co-worker get credit for their ideas.

Women leaders are exhausted and undervalued. Women often volunteer to take on roles at work, like leading a company’s diversity initiative, which is rarely considered when raises and promotions are given out. When people don’t feel appreciated, they look elsewhere for opportunities where they will be recognized and rewarded for their efforts.

Choice is critical: Women want and need flexibility. Yet companies like Disney and JP Morgan are sending out messages to their employees that say butts in seats or no work. Women are choosing to sit their butts down elsewhere. They’re going to organizations where they control how and when work gets done.

Getting women leaders to stay

Managers play a vital role in terms of the retention of talent. When organizations invest in developing their people, employees are more apt to stay. When employees see people who look like them in senior leadership roles, they know what’s possible.

If you don’t want the women in your organization to participate in The Great Breakup, give them a reason to stay. Show them that the best partner is the one they’re with.

Here’s where to start:

  • Rethink systems and challenge norms
  • Support the advancement of women
  • Give women the flexibility they need to be successful
  • Hold managers accountable and acknowledge and reward those fully committed to helping women succeed in your workplace
  • Look at your pipeline and identify areas where women may be seeping out of your organization
  • Take steps to fix problem areas

Breaking up is hard on companies and will have a lasting impact on your organization. Do everything in your power to retain those women leaders you’ve worked extremely hard to attract, and if you’re lucky, they may give you a second chance.

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