The pandemic has been especially difficult for women at work. And now, after years of hardship, women’s hard-won progress in leadership is actually rolling back, according to new data from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org’s annual Women in the Workplace report.
Women in leadership, which includes people who are senior managers all the way up to the C-suite, are leaving their jobs at the highest rate since McKinsey and LeanIn started collecting attrition data from companies five years ago. The gap between men and women leaders leaving is also the highest it’s ever been.
In some sense, this is the latest installment of the Great Resignation, in which everyone from front-line workers to bosses has been increasingly willing to quit their jobs for better conditions somewhere else, while a tight job market makes it possible. But in another sense, this is a logical conclusion to what has been frustratingly slow progress for women in the workplace. It seems as though women leaders have had enough.
“Women are not breaking up with work,” said LeanIn.Org co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas, who co-authored the report. “They’re breaking up with their companies if they’re not delivering the work experience, and some of the cultural elements of work that are critically important to them.”
These women have been leaving for a variety of reasons. One is money, since they still make less of it than men. They want better opportunities for advancement than at their current workplace. They also want flexibility. Women are much more likely than men to want to work from home since they have inordinate child care duties and generally report a worse experience than men in the office.
The new study from McKinsey and LeanIn drew upon employment data from 330 companies and also surveyed more than 40,000 employees. Women in leadership said they were much more likely to be burnt out than their male colleagues (43 percent of women versus 31 percent of men). They’re also more likely to have colleagues get credit for their work or to be mistaken for junior employees.
“These everyday stabs are signals,” McKinsey senior partner and report co-author Lareina Yee told Recode. “And what the companies are signaling in multiple different ways is that despite your ambition, and despite the fact that you’ve become a senior leader, you don’t have as many opportunities to advance.”
There were already too few women in leadership, since women are less likely to get promoted. The report found that for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level to manager, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are. Women make up 40 percent of managers, the report found, and the proportion gets more rarified the higher women progress. Only one in four in the C-suite is a woman; only one in 20 is a woman of color.
The report’s authors said that for every woman promoted to the director level, two women at that level are leaving.
The combination of leadership departures and lower rates of advancement is bad news for the companies, which have been ostensibly working to promote more diversity and inclusion. Companies with diverse leadership perform better than those that don’t. Women also shoulder more diversity and inclusion efforts, meaning women in leadership beget more women in leadership. If these companies don’t do something to stanch the losses and to promote women, especially women of color, things could get worse.
The factors driving women leaders to leave their companies are even more important to young women, the report found. Younger women were more likely than older women to say career advancement has become more important to them in the past two years. About two-thirds of women under 30 said they’d be more interested in advancing if they saw leaders display work-life balance. This tracks with a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which found that work-life balance is becoming an increasingly important career requirement for young people.
To stop this, companies have to make a lot of improvements. The report gave a few recommendations, starting with flexibility. The study found, unsurprisingly, that people who can choose their work arrangement (whether that’s remote or in person) were less likely to report being burnt out and also less likely to want to leave their jobs, so allowing people to work in a manner that’s best for them is key to retaining them. Companies also have to be sure that, if they do allow people to work remotely, they evaluate them — and promote them — equally with in-person colleagues. That takes training, and it also takes incentives: The report suggests tying a manager’s performance to their ability to hire and retain women and people of color. Finally, companies have to seriously invest in career development for these employees, including formal sponsorship programs in which senior leaders mentor women. Otherwise, women and women of color are going to develop their skills somewhere else.
Workers’ willingness to leave to get what they want out of work is the main hallmark of the Great Resignation. If there’s a way to stop the trend of workers quitting, perhaps more companies need to be proactive about giving those workers what they want.