Retaining and Developing Women Leaders in the Workplace
#evolve Magazine
March 09, 2023

With 4.09 million people quitting their jobs at the end of 2022, the Great Resignation is far from over, and women are the ones leading the charge.

According to a recent Women in the Workplace report, conducted by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in partnership with LeanIn.org, women are leaving their jobs at the highest rate ever and at a much higher rate than men leaders (10.5% compared to 9% for men). The report surveyed more than 40,000 employees from 333 participating organizations employing more than 12 million people.

In addition, women are still dramatically underrepresented in leadership roles. The report found for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted and only 82 women of color are promoted.

“[Women] are breaking up with companies because they’re confident they will get an opportunity to advance somewhere else, which is something we haven’t seen before,” Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., told CNBC Make It. “It really speaks to the fact that loyalty has its limits.”

If that is the case, how can organizations bring women back to the workplace? We asked HR leaders and experts to share their thoughts and solutions.  


Reasons for Leaving 

The mass exodus was most likely triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of women left the labor force. Even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported women have now recovered the net job losses experienced in 2020, there are over 1 million fewer women in the labor force now than before the pandemic started.

What trends are driving this situation? Kate Bravery, senior partner, advisory solutions and insight leader, GBS and career at Mercer, points to labor market opportunities (women have more confidence to make the move now), and genuine differences between the genders with respect to their relationship with work (both in terms of how they view their career and their ability to integrate it successfully with their life).

Mercer research revealed women are concerned about pay and promotion, and challenges with work and work-life integration, making working less sustainable for them individually. Its recent Global Talent Trend study found men are more likely than women to believe that their manager is invested in their career success (75% vs. 68%). Another Mercer study — Inside Employees’ Minds (IEM) — revealed just 1 in 2 U.S. women (53%) felt their career goals could be met by their current company, lower than prior years.

Bravery also cited burnout and pay as other issues to why women are leaving their jobs. The Global Talent Trend study found women attributed burnout more to exhaustion (29% vs. 21%) and workload (30% vs. 24%).

“What we are seeing is women are feeling less like their manager is investing in their success and less like they can meet their career goals in their current organization — all while feeling that they are constantly challenged on how to integrate their life around their work and with the risk of burnout,” she said. “Add to this the cost of childcare and elder care, and there are multiple reasons why their current work situation and/or employer is not enabling them to thrive and grow.”

IEM data also revealed a woman would consider leaving her current employee today in the U.S. due to pay (58%) followed by burnout (36%). These are the same top two reasons for men, Bravery said, although there is more variation. The data for men are pay (51%) and burnout (32%), which is significantly lower. This suggests that women feel that their work arrangement is more inequitable, and their workload/stresses are less manageable, she said.  

“In many markets around the world, women are working but in the informal economy caring for those in need,” Bravery said.

Pay in nursing, childcare, elderly care and hospitality remains stubbornly low despite the bump they got immediately after the pandemic, she added. To resolve that, Bravery encouraged more conversations about four-day work weeks and flexible working arrangements in light of take-home pay.

In the tech industry, the challenge is even more severe for women.

Paula Bratcher Ratliff, president of Women Impact Tech, shared that women make up only 28.8% of the U.S. total tech workforce. Only 16% of total senior-level technologists are female, and only 10% of people at the executive-level in tech are women.

To put it into even clearer perspective, Bratcher Ratliff said, for every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two female directors leave their company.

The “why” is in the general hiring trends for women, Bratcher Ratliff said: 48% of women in STEM jobs report discrimination in the recruiting and hiring process; 39% of women view gender bias as a primary reason for not being offered a promotion; and 66% of women report that there is no clear path forward in their career at their current company. For female leaders specifically, 43% report being burned out, compared to only 31% of men at their level.

Even with the increase of remote and hybrid work, challenges still arise for women.

“Many [organizations] have returned to requiring employees to be present in the office,” said Meredith Courtney, strategic partnership director at Smith College Executive Education, a women’s leadership center in Northampton, Massachusetts.

“We’re now seeing a different dynamic, depending on the organizational culture, where some women feel they need to be on-site or in-person to show they’re committed to their roles. There may be unspoken penalties for using benefits related to remote and hybrid work,” Courtney said. “So, the notion of a ‘flexible’ work schedule can be a Catch-22 in some ways, depending on the support women feel they have from their leaders.”

And with more men (who are more likely to want to work in person) in leadership roles, shifting policies to more on-site/less flexible work has potential to disproportionately impact women, said Bravery.

To entice women who left the workforce entirely during the pandemic to return, Bravery said companies need to take intentional action.

“Women will not naturally migrate despite facing the health and wealth ramifications of being out of the workforce for a prolonged period,” she said. “You can’t go without addressing child care and other caring responsibilities…It’s critically important to find ways to understand the unique female populations in your workforce.”

For example, reintegration into work and culture can be daunting. Targeted support for women will make a difference, Bravery said.

“They need help reestablishing their networks, especially if coming back into a remote or hybrid role or a new organization,” she explained. “They need help forming new habits and building personal resilience around stress. Those that did not get swept up in the post-pandemic digital wave also might have to do significant learning just to be able to engage and collaborate at work. Work buddies, time with tech and peer-to-peer learning nuggets can all help with re-entry.”

Furthermore, Courtney suggested organizations take an honest look at their policies, culture and mission by asking: 

  • What role models are there within the company that embody the potential for women to grow and thrive there?
  • Are women in more senior roles providing mentorship opportunities for emerging leaders?
  • Is the company committed to providing development opportunities for women at all levels?  

“Women, and particularly women in the Millennial and Gen Z generations, view development as a ‘must have,’ not a ‘nice to have,’” Courtney said. “Broadly speaking, take a look at how an existing employee would describe the culture and mission to a prospective employee.” 


Developing Women Leaders

In her role, Courtney said the most successful organizations the Center has worked with were very intentional about communicating their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts across the organization.  

“Every employee knows that the company is committed to advancing women in the pipeline,” she said.

Providing development opportunities like executive education and training is a given, she said. Beyond that, companies should consider:

  • How are managers providing ongoing feedback to employees?
  • Are managers trained to go beyond the annual performance review and have open, candid conversations with employees about their potential?
  • Do managers know how to identify high-potential employees and strategies for retaining them? 

In addition, women benefit from having a strong network of other women, inside or outside of their organizations, that they can turn to for advice and guidance about challenges they face. These connections are especially valuable in traditionally male-dominated industries, Courtney said. 



 

To make a real difference toward gender equity, Women Impact Tech’s Paula Bratcher Ratliff said companies need to tackle not only their mission and set DEI goals, but they must also execute a culture that supports their initiatives. That means creating:

  • Transparent pay equity across the organization.
  • A flexible culture that allows for work-life balance.
  • Environments where women and diverse talent can contribute to business initiatives to ensure companies gain a diversity of thought and ideas, regardless of title or position in the organization.
  • A culture where women are sponsored and have a clear understanding and path for career advancement.
  • Strong networks for women either within their organization or through membership networks of women outside the organization. 

  


 

For women of color, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities, it’s imperative that organizations prioritize equity and inclusivity for all women –– starting from the top down. 

Sara Sutton, FlexJobs CEO and founder, said DEI should begin in the hiring and onboarding process.

“The best way to sustainably diversify your workforce is to start by developing and streamlining a recruitment pipeline that helps your organization connect, source, recruit and hire more inclusively,” she said. “Then, it’s important to prevent tokenism and rather to truly commit to integrating all people in a way they feel valued.”

Providing a safe, inclusive environment for women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and women with disabilities allows them to bring their whole self to the workplace and thrive in their careers, Women Impact Tech’s Bratcher Ratliff said.  

It all goes back to culture, added Courtney of Smith College. Is the team environment one where everyone, regardless of who they are, feels psychologically safe? Do they feel they can contribute their ideas without pushback and be open to taking risks without fear of failure?  

Manager awareness training is also critical when it comes to inclusivity. 

Data suggests that women, and particularly women of color, experience microaggressions in the workplace that impact their day-to-day sense of safety and security,” Courtney said. “Because microaggressions may not be overtly ‘aggressive,’ managers may not be aware of when they’re happening.” 


Looking to the Future

Mercer’s research showed that most CEOs and CFOs are gearing up for growth this year, yet talent shortages are a huge concern. That’s why it’s important for companies to invest in retaining and developing women leaders. 

“We need greater participation of workers in the workforce, we need to extend the working life of those that do participate, and we need to find ways to bring those lost back to the workforce,” Bravery said. “These three imperatives are critical, yet the barriers for women are often higher than for men. With this impacting our economy, all parties need to actively outreach to women and understand the causes of systemic bias in the workplace.” 

Courtney added, “We also know that organizations look at their bottom line when making critical decisions. Research shows that organizations that prioritize advancing women to top leadership roles have better bottom-line business outcomes.”

More so than just the economic imperative, there is a social concern. Left unchecked, Bravery said, there will be more men in decision-making roles and fewer women positioned to influence them, undoing decades of progress without intentional strategies.  

In addition, the socio-economic makeup of the U.S. workforce is shifting in ways that will profoundly affect when, where and how people work. According to Sutton, the rise of single-parent households, women as the main breadwinners, a more global workforce overall, and remote and flexible work are all interconnected — and HR should play a vital role in integrating their workplaces accordingly.  

“Women make up 51% of the population in the U.S.,” said Bratcher Ratliff. “Women should make up the same population in the workforce to assist companies in achieving diversity in thought and innovation.” 


Editor’s Note: Additional Content 

For more information and resources related to this article see the pages below, which offer quick access to all WorldatWork content on these topics: 

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