Women in leadership roles are leaving their jobs in search of better opportunities and increased flexibility, according to a new report, and that could spell good news for the women and bad news for the companies they’re leaving behind.
What’s more, the women are exiting at a higher rate than their male counterparts, according to the latest iteration of Women in the Workplacean annual report from consultancy firm McKinsey & Company and women’s advocacy nonprofit LeanIn.org, out Tuesday.
This trend marks a shift in how some women leaders may be approaching their careers. Following a tumultuous few years in which women reported heightened burnout owing to pandemic stresses and a lopsided work/life balance, and in which one in four women were considering downshifting or leaving work altogether, many are reigniting their professional ambitions.
This shift also follows a larger cultural moment — the so-called Great Resignation, where workers started leaving jobs in droves in 2021 to pursue positions better suited to them. In November 2021, 4.5 million people left their jobs, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Women are saying, ‘I’ve survived, but I also wanted to thrive,'” said Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey and one of the report’s authors.
The report, in its eighth year, includes survey data from more than 41,000 employees in the US across about 20 industries. It digs into some of the reasons women leaders could be leaving, including to go in search of employers who prioritize flexibility, remote or hybrid work, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Forty-nine percent of women leaders surveyed said flexibility was a top-three issue they were considering when deciding whether to stay in their jobs. That’s compared with 34% of male leaders).
Women in senior roles aren’t the only ones placing importance on those factors. In fact, some of these issues could be even more important to younger women, according to the report. Fifty-eight percent of women under 30 said advancement has become more important to them in the last two years, as compared with 31% of women leaders. Almost two-thirds would be more interested in advancing if they saw women in leadership roles with the work-life balance they desire.
For companies, losing women in leadership roles and losing younger women exacerbates an already persistent problem. Yee pointed out that entry-level roles are about 48% women, and that number drops over time, down to about 26% of executive roles (the folks who report to a company’s CEO).
And as women are more likely to drive efforts like diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the report, and as a mounting pile of research shows companies with diversity in their executive teams outperform their less diverse peers in terms of profitability, this exodus could have a real consequence for companies.
In short, companies don’t need more reasons to lose women.
“It’s not only that we’re losing the women leaders that often lead to better business results,” said LeanIn.Org’s co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas. “They’re also deriving a lot of the cultural change in organizations that we know employees want to see.”
The pandemic gave some working women a look at how remote and hybrid work can be a sustainable work arrangement. In fact, 64% of women who get to work the way they prefer (be it remote, hybrid or on site) said they were unlikely to leave their job in the next year. Only one in 10 said they’d prefer to work mostly on site.
Aside from the flexibility, 36% of women of color who mostly work on site said they deal with behavior like microaggressions and “othering” as compared with 23% who are mostly remote. Harvard Business Review explains microaggressions as “verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.” Along those lines, 43% women with disabilities report experiencing similar problems on site, as opposed to 31% who mostly work remote.
“That really punctuates how important it is that companies really invest in inclusion, and really invest in making sure that all women feel supported,” Thomas said.
Though the most life-changing era of the pandemic might be in the past, the report did find some holding issues. For example, 43% of women leaders said they were burned out, compared with 31% of their male counterparts. Women leaders have been more likely to prioritize employees’ well-being and as last year’s report pointed out, help them navigate work-life challenges and even provide emotional support, according to the report.
The report also refreshed some past statistics. For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, 87 women make the same move (down from 89 in 2021). For women of color, that number is 82 (down from 85). Yee said these small movements in numbers more so underline a stubborn problem in companies where women are just not advancing to their first promotion. It’s something the report has dubbed “the broken rung.”
“Instead of thinking about what the woman may or may not have done,” Yee said, “what is the company not doing?”