Women face more challenges, hurdles, and barriers in the workplace. They just do. It’s been demonstrated in study after study, decade after decade. We’re hired less, promoted less, judged and reviewed more critically, and subjected to unique stressors—harassment, misogyny, disproportionate homelife demands—that together make women less likely to remain in the workforce. All of those factors combined, and exacerbated by the pandemic, have hampered women’s strides toward workplace and economic equality. And they’ve critically hindered women’s post-pandemic job recovery, in largely predictable ways
: job recovery picked up when people felt optimistic, only to slow to a crawl, at times even losing ground, each time the pandemic worsened, with gains largely in low-paying, public-facing retail and service positions.
Less commented on during the worst of all this was the stress falling in particular on women in leadership roles, from supervisors up the chain to the C-suite. Here, numbers were harder to crunch as there were already fewer women in such roles, but the picture that emerged was one of vastly accelerated burnout, especially among women with children, having to scale back their role at work (which, even if only temporary, tends to have a lasting, negative impact on lifetime earnings) to account for the increased demands of managing a household under lockdown, and a higher incidence of simply quitting. In time, we achieved an uneasy equilibrium, a blend of hybrid and remote work that’s lifespan is precarious at best, with many companies eager to get back to the office and mandatory RTO orders running aground with each new wave. And even in industries with remote and hybrid work still widely available, the She-cession persists.
The latest chapter in this story—one that seems a logical consequence of the past two and a half years and yet has caught companies by surprise—is what the 2022 Women in the Workplace report calls the “Great Breakup”
(presumably for rhetorical symmetry with the Great Resignation). Published annually by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, Women in the Workplace is the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. Now in its eighth edition, this year’s report finds that women leaders are leaving corporate jobs in unusual numbers—at a much higher rate than men in leadership—seeking out better remote options, more flexibility, and a greater focus on diversity and inclusion. And while there may be positives to glean from this finding (i.e., women feel more empowered to demand their worth and leave jobs that aren’t meeting their needs), the fact remains that this is a concerning trend.
Even that positive reading of the situation is still merely a euphemism for a problem that even the thickest coat of sugar can’t make palatable: that women in leadership positions increasingly find their positions unsustainable, so much so that they walk away from them altogether. The report details these “headwinds” toward advancement that women face: being overworked at work without recognition, being overworked at home, the stressors of bias, discrimination, and outright disrespect, especially among women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities, the impossibility of being everywhere at once, and so forth. It correctly acknowledges that women departing from leadership roles reduces opportunities for every other woman at the same organization through reduced access to the promotion pipeline, which in turn further ossifies leadership, which makes the company less hospitable to women overall, and on and on in a vicious cycle of white men shaking hands over martinis.
Critically, while the report takes great pains to talk about how organizations can stop women from leaving—and rightfully so, as this is an issue that should alarm company leadership—it doesn’t delve into whether and to what degree women have succeeded in finding better workplace conditions after they leave. That’s a troubling omission, because one of the more glaring problems with our economic recovery has been the relative difficulty women have faced in reclaiming higher-paying positions beyond the shopfront. There are troubling indications that this remains a problem that is only getting worse with time; research in the UK finds
that far more women than men are actively looking for higher-paying jobs. Meanwhile, the child-care sector is still in a state of crisis
, leaving working mothers with few to no options. It’s impossible not to look at all of these indicators and wonder what the picture we aren’t seeing might be.
The exodus of women from leadership is thankfully not going unnoticed, but if executives aren’t finding their working conditions tenable, what options are they left with, and how likely does it seem that women further down the ladder are faring any better? The report’s focus on leadership and identifying women’s reasons for departure is valuable—and the insights companies can gain from it are critical—but I’m still left wondering what happens after women leave. What options are they finding? Are things actually improving for them? Are companies successfully stepping up? Are women finding equivalent jobs at better organizations at anything approaching a 1:1 rate? And what happens to those who don’t? Do they exit the workforce (and thus vanish from unemployment numbers)? Do they accept worse pay for better conditions? And how do all of these factors play into the oft-repeated claim that the United States has recovered every job lost to the pandemic? What I’d really love to see is a study that raises and answers these questions.
The report draws itself to a conclusion with some useful action items on employee retention, but more work needs to be done to dig into what comes next for women. What job prospects do burnt-out executives “breaking up” with their jobs have? Are these women leaders who are demanding more from their jobs successfully finding more? If not, why? And critically, what can be done about it?
The takeaway for companies interested in retaining women in leadership positions is clear—listen to those very same women. But the picture that still needs to come into focus is what businesses in this pivotal moment must do to meet it, to ensure that women have the support and tools they need to sustain, advance, and succeed in their careers.
Women are walking an ever-thinning tightrope between balancing work and literally everything else—I think it’s long past time we build a bridge in its place.