Mass employee upheaval has become more common in the past couple of years. But now it seems that women specifically are leaving leadership roles in alarming numbers. So, forget about the ‘Great Resignation’, it’s time to get to grips with the ‘Great Break-up’, and do better at supporting female employees at work.

If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, let us explain what the Great Break-up actually is. Last year, McKinsey, working with LeanIn.Org, released their eighth annual Women in the Workplace report. For this research, they surveyed 333 participating US organisations employing over 12 million people. More than 40,000 employees were surveyed, including women from a diverse array of backgrounds. These include women of different ethnic backgrounds, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities.

The results were clear to see. Despite gradual gains in recent years, the number of women getting into leadership roles is still lower than the number of men. There are a few factors at play here, including current events and toxic aspects of workplace culture. We’ve got more to say on that in a bit. But, for now, let’s focus stats.

For every 100 men promoted into a starting management role, there were only 87 women. This represents the biggest single leap in disparity as we move up the management track.

And maybe a 13% disparity doesn’t seem like a whole lot. But this first hurdle has a knock-on effect which becomes more and more apparent further up the line.

The management pipeline has a bottleneck

Diversity at work, and in leadership, can be a huge benefit to business innovation. But, all the same, there’s a bottleneck for women in the workplace. And, if we’re to effectively support female employees, we need to understand it and its causes.

In 2022, women comprised 48% of entry-level positions. This falls to 40% for starting manager roles. Then to 36% for senior manager or director roles. Just under a third of vice presidential positions go to women, falling to 28% at the senior level. And, at the top, women only account for 1 in 4 C-Suite level positions.

On top of that, white women were significantly more represented than women of colour. Even at the entry level, white women occupied 29% of roles, compared to the 19% held by women of colour. At the C-Suite level, that figure falls to an abysmal 1 in 20.

At each level, there are various issues that can risk driving women out of your workplace. But the bottleneck is more than that. At each stage, the percentage of female employees falls. So, each time, men occupy a larger majority.

You might argue that this isn’t an issue in your business. That your employees get considered on individual merits. But, at each stage, more of the employees who merit consideration end up being men. So, even when you think you’re being the perfect egalitarian, you’re still more likely to end up promoting a male candidate.

In that sense, the loss of female talent moving from entry-level to management has the most impact. It’s basically the first falling pebble before the dam collapses.

Why are women leaving leadership roles?

The end result of all this is that women are leaving leadership roles at a much greater rate than male leaders. And understanding why is key to supporting female employees in 2023. So, why is this happening?

Well… how long have you got?

Seriously, if we went in-depth on every issue affecting women in the workplace, we’d fill a library. But, broadly speaking, we can break these factors down into two categories: Internal and external.

Internal factors

When we say internal factors, we mean aspects of the employee experience that cause women to consider a career change. Some are universal. Momentive and CNBC’s Women at Work survey is a strong example of this, although it’s about supporting female employees in general. The top reported reasons for women considering a change of work were:

  • Higher pay (52%)
  • Less stress (51%)
  • Better work/life balance (48%)

But others are specific to individuals or demographics. And it’s those issues that are our main focus today.

Since we’re talking about the loss of female talent, it’s inevitable that we have to address the topic of workplace misogyny. Outright discrimination may be illegal. But women still frequently experience microaggressions. Remember that McKinsey/LeanIn.Org report?

It found that women are much more likely than men to have their qualifications questioned. On top of that, they’re more likely to have personal characteristics or lifestyle choices used as reasons to pass them over for promotion.

Women are also twice as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior than they really are. Imagine an executive being mistaken for their own secretary, or a doctor mistaken for a nurse, based purely on gender.

McKinsey research has also found that 37% of women leaders have had a colleague take credit for their ideas. And, even when female leaders do find ways to go the extra mile, it’s often a thankless job. For example, McKinsey has found that female leaders do twice the work for diversity, equality and inclusion than male peers. But only around a quarter of employers seem to acknowledge these efforts in performance reviews.

External factors

External factors are reasons to quit that don’t stem from your specific workplace culture. These include:

  • The Great Resignation
  • Other job opportunities
  • Side-hustle culture
  • Outdated societal pressures

The Great Resignation may not be specific to women. But it’s affected women as much as anyone. It’s sort of in the middle of the Internal/External Venn diagram, because it all ties back to problems with management and work culture. The Great Resignation was just the catalyst, the match that sparked the powder keg.

And it’s never an easy thing to quit a job you thought you’d be in for the long haul. But, sometimes, the grass actually is greener. Sometimes, a better offer comes along. Maybe the pay is better, or they’re offering more flexibility. Or perhaps you actually have a chance of getting promoted in the first place.

Sometimes, it’s not even a job at all. In today’s side-hustle culture, every other person has an Etsy store or does some kind of freelance work on the side. These things can start as a way of padding income. But some people manage to turn these things into full-time careers with way more personal autonomy. It’s risky, but so is staying in a problematic work culture.

And, finally, there’s the fact that women are often still subjected to traditional expectations by people around them. It’s not uncommon for women to have family members pressuring them to be homemakers. Even mothers with careers end up getting grilled for trying to “have it all.”

Supporting female employees with 3 simple steps

To better support female employees, businesses need to be willing to address issues in their work culture. This means addressing obstacles and checking biases to ensure fair and effective performance management.

Women should be heard in your business

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times. If you want employees to engage with your work culture, you need to let their voices be heard. One of the best ways to support female employees (or, really, any staff member) is with a regular check-in.

This gives women a way to flag up issues and obstacles affecting their career progression. Those might include personal needs, like help with work stress, or more job flexibility. But it also means the blockers making things tougher for women throughout your organisation.

If you want to remove a problem by its root, you need to listen to the people most affected by it. That doesn’t just mean women, but your BAME and LGBTQ+ employees, and your employees with disabilities too.

Mentorship can help women advance their careers

Mentorships can pay career dividends for both the mentor and mentee. For mentors, it’s a chance to show off leadership skills, an understanding of workplace culture, and their abilities as a coach. For mentees, it’s the benefit of someone else’s wisdom.

Anyone can benefit from getting involved with mentorships. But it’s women and members of minority groups who stand to benefit the most. Having someone fighting in your corner can make it easier to overcome unfair treatment.

But it’s especially helpful when your mentor is someone who’s been through what you’re experiencing. Case in point, finding female mentors for female employees. Someone to help female talent to self-advocate, handle stressful HR situations and navigate work culture. And, as a bonus, female mentors get the chance to nurture the next generation of women in leadership roles.

Connect recognition with succession

For our final point, we want to connect employee recognition with succession planning. Given that women’s discretionary efforts are often overlooked, and others take credit for their ideas, we must do better. Check-ins go a long way towards helping with employee recognition, but you have to be active about it too. Don’t just acknowledge hard work privately, but offer visibility and open praise.

With a solid succession plan, you often have a clear of who will fill what vacancy in case of a departure. In that sense, sometimes, promotions are decided before they even crop up. If women at work were getting credit for their contributions, we’d probably see a lot more women in leadership roles today.