Women Leaders Are Searching for Something Better. It’s Time to Proactively Retain Them.

Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rate we’ve ever seen. Find out why, and how to retain them at your organization.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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Women leaders sitting at a table having a discussion with notebooks and paperwork on the table

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    Female leaders are fed up with the status quo 

    Women leaders are leaving their jobs at the highest rate in history. Why? A recent report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company quantifies what many women have been experiencing throughout their careers.  

    Women are still paid less than their male colleagues, facing microaggressions at work, and routinely have their authority undermined and competency questioned. Rates of sexual harassment in the workplace are also appallingly high

    Alongside all that, women leaders continue to be promoted unequally compared to their male colleagues, and are poorly represented in high-level positions.

    Currently, a tight labor market is allowing women to leave companies that aren’t following up on promises to prioritize employee wellbeing and DEI efforts, and build workplaces where women leaders are able to thrive. 

    Why are women leaders quitting in record numbers?

    Using the comparison of a group of 100 white men who are promoted from entry level to a manager position, only 87 women are given the same promotion. This number drops lower for women of color, and gets even worse for women with intersecting identities.

    The Women in the Workplace 2022 report reveals that for entry level positions, white men make up 33% of the workforce, white women 29%, and women of color 19%. By the time you get to C-suite, 61% of employees are white men, 21% are white women, and only 5% are women of color. 

    Those are disheartening numbers for women who are driven to climb the corporate ladder, but remain blocked due to structural conditions within their company or organization. 

    Women leaders are searching for equity in the workplace

    During the pandemic, many employees reevaluated their priorities and began switching jobs to work for companies where their mental health and wellbeing are taken seriously. That trend has continued as workers flee toxic cultures.

    Female leaders are now taking a similar approach. They aren’t deciding they don’t want to work. They’re searching for jobs where they are respected and rewarded for their efforts on an equal playing field with male employees.

    There are other, related factors causing women to quit, discussed in the LeanIn.org and McKinsey report. Women leaders are:

    • Still disproportionately responsible for childcare, general care work, and housework, making remote work and flexible scheduling especially appealing
    • Much more likely to be burnt out than men, likely due to some combination of harmful workplace conditions and the second shift of care work women are often responsible for at home
    • More likely to have their work taken credit for by male colleagues
    • More likely to be misidentified as junior employees

    All these workplace dynamics signal that women aren’t going to be taken as seriously as their male colleagues, promotion is less likely, and addressing the dynamics is not a priority for the company. 

    It’s really not surprising that women are searching for something better.

    Women are also more likely to actively support DEI efforts and emphasize supporting employee wellbeing—without being formally recognized for doing the work. This can lead to greater levels of burnout.

    Mental health is a largely unrecognized factor 

    Although women and men have similar rates of mental health issues overall, women shoulder a different set of mental health burdens in the workplace

    We’ve talked about some of the particular burdens women leaders deal with, but bringing everything together provides a fuller picture of why they are fed up. Along with all of the regular stressors of work, female employees also face:

    • Often being the only woman in the room. It’s exhausting to be the only person of an underrepresented identity at work, and the employee may feel the need to keep their guard up.
    • Sexual harrassment and assault.
    • Higher rates of domestic violence at home.
    • Unequal caregiving responsibilities.
    • Microaggressions at work.
    • Having their competency questioned.
    • Unfair promotion practices.

    This likely contributes to why women employees are twice as likely as men to experience depression, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and eating disorders.

    Women are often slowly ground down by discrimination at work, and from knowing their efforts may never be recognized or lead to promotion. And they are leaving jobs like these in droves.

    How to Proactively retaining your female leaders

    Women leaders are making it clear what they want in the workplace. 

    They want their work to be recognized, to be paid and promoted equally with men, to work in an environment free of harassment and microaggressions, to have their wellbeing and mental health supported, and flexibility for when and where they work.

    A multipronged approach is most effective to address the exodus, in the areas of workplace culture, systemic issues, work flexibility, mental health support, and leadership training.

    Address workplace culture: psychological safety and DEI efforts

    We’ve touched on this topic throughout the blog, but I want to reify the importance of creating a workplace culture where women leaders feel a sense of psychological safety, are recognized for their efforts around DEI and employee wellbeing, and are free to work without sexual harrassment or bias.

    Women leaders are showing with their actions that they’re no longer willing to tolerate the business as usual approach. 

    Here are four ways to create a work environment where women leaders can succeed:

    • Recognize and take action when women leaders are sidelined, silenced, or belittled. Are women always being spoken over at meetings? Address it. Are there a number of complaints about a particular employee harassing women? Investigate immediately and take action.
    • Build a responsive HR infrastructure with anonymous reporting mechanisms, treat reports seriously, and investigate and act with urgency. This shows employees at all levels that reports of discrimination are taken seriously.
    • Follow up with employees who report discrimination. Do they feel like the situation was adequately taken care of? Do they feel supported? If not, do something about it. 
    • Clearly integrate inclusive values at all levels: into policies, procedures, practices, and incentives that address discrimination and ensure that all employees are held accountable. This is increasingly important to all employees, but especially young women, and an essential part of attracting the next generation of women leaders.

    Women leaders want to work for companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is likely both a moral stance and for personal safety and psychological wellbeing. 

    Female leaders who inhabit multiple marginalized identities know they are more likely to be treated well at a company with active DEI efforts and space for a variety of voices.

    Create flexible work arrangements for women leaders

    Flexible work arrangements continue to rank as one of the top priorities for all employees. 

    Being able to work remotely and have flexible scheduling allows women to manage care work alongside paid work. Considering that women still do a majority of care work at home, this significantly contributes to retention.

    Working remotely also means that women leaders deal with less harassment and fewer microaggressions. It speaks volumes that working from home is often necessary for women to simply feel safe doing their job.

    Address systemic issues: equal pay and removing barriers to promotion 

    Equal pay for equal work is the lowest bar for retaining women leaders. There are also less obvious barriers to address here.

    Consider changing your promotion process to ensure women are promoted equally. A recent study shows that although women employees had, on average, better performance ratings than men, they still were rated as having less leadership potential. 

    Subsequently, in the study, women were 14% less likely to be promoted. Imagine how it feels to work hard, earn better performance reviews than their male colleagues, and still be passed over for promotions.

    The problem with using a vaguely defined value like leadership potential is that it allows for gender bias and stereotypes to play into performance reviews. It’s important to use specific, defined variables when measuring performance and deciding who is promoted. 

    Involvement in employee wellbeing and DEI efforts is one metric to start including during performance reviews.

    Traditional promotion metrics don’t provide a full picture of who is an effective leader. Being outgoing, loud, aggressive, utilizing fear-based leadership tactics, and putting in the most overtime are not necessarily the traits of someone best suited to lead others. 

    The overvaluing of such leadership styles is likely a large contributor to why so many employees leave toxic workplaces.

    How Spring Health helps retain women leaders

    Spring Health offers one-on-one leadership training and support with licensed clinicians for supervisors and People leaders—which is useful on several fronts for retaining your female employees. 

    This training includes individualized mental health support and help with navigating workplace dynamics. At the same time, People leaders and supervisors are trained to understand and negotiate team dynamics, so they aren’t unconsciously reinforcing power structures that cause women to be treated unfairly.

    Leaders also learn how to:

    • Manage remote workers
    • Have hard conversations around any topic
    • Invest in effective DEI efforts
    • How to more generally create an environment where inclusion and psychological safety are foregrounded

    Remember, these directly relate to some of the reasons women are quitting at such high rates.

    Women leaders face unique mental health challenges in the workplace, as we’ve discussed. Having a licensed clinical therapist to provide support in dealing with those challenges is key to keeping women leaders around and flourishing.

    Read this blog next to learn more about why supporting women’s mental health matters, and ways to advocate for change through policies and on a personal level.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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