Why Women Leave Leadership and What to Do About It
7 ways organizations can do better.
Posted May 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Accomplished women express some version of being fed up with feeling undervalued, underutilized, and overworked in the workplace.
- If and when they transition into a leadership role, women often receive insufficient leadership development and experience gender disparities.
- Workplaces must train current leaders to be better mentors and coaches to emerging leaders.
This past year, I've had an increasing number of sessions with talented, accomplished women who have expressed some version of being fed up with feeling undervalued, underutilized, and overworked in all the wrong ways at their organization.
Feeling overworked is probably the most often cited among these.
While data is still being analyzed about the “Great Resignation” (Great Reshuffling?), current research suggests that women:
- May be resigning at faster rates than men,
- Are more likely to contemplate leaving,
- Experience higher rates of burnout;
- Are less likely to receive a pay raise or bonus for taking on additional work or changing roles,
- Are more likely to agree to taking on unpaid informal leadership roles shouldering heavy responsibilities, such as employee wellness or DEI programs (which adds to the increased burnout and lack of recognition noted above), and
- Are less likely to feel empowered to take advantage of flexible working arrangements.
These data points and current research align with my anecdotal experience of hearing women's increasing concerns about feeling overworked and under-supported for that extra work.
As a woman, psychologist, academic, and leadership and organizational consultant, preceded by 10-plus years of direct leadership experience in large complex organizations, my interest in addressing this problem is both personal and professional.
The impact of the pandemic has pushed women to take a broader perspective on their career needs and have a greater recognition of their value.
These trends are not necessarily specific to women. We are all realizing the critical need to re-adjust how we do our work and make room for what matters, both in and outside of work.
However, women, as well as people from other traditionally marginalized groups, continue to experience greater disparities in access to support as well as negative impact.
While individuals need to make their own personal decisions about how to manage this overwork, organizations can do a lot to create change in how we work. If they cannot, they are at risk for losing talent, not to mention costly recruitment and training needs due to increased turnover.
What are we doing wrong?
There is a bigger picture at play that is at the root cause of what we are seeing, especially for women. Starting early in life, most girls and women begin to receive consistent, subtle, gender-norming messages that their role is to be nurturing, selfless, supportive, and communal which perpetuated into their leadership roles and opportunities.
These are great virtues for any human to embrace. However, these messages are insufficiently balanced out with messages about recognizing their strengths and value and setting boundaries for how much time and energy they sacrifice for the good of others compared to their career and their needs.
If/when they transition into a leadership role, women often:
- Receive insufficient leadership development or less access to leadership development opportunities, compared to men.
- Receive bad leadership development training, either leaning toward a one-size-fits-all model that does not consider their lived experience with gender biases that affect their opportunities and success or providing harmful training for how to “fix” problems that are portrayed as internal to women rather than a systemic issue of gender biases.
- Are over-mentored in ways that can actually stifle their further proportional opportunities,
- Are under-sponsored compared to their male colleague despite having similar skillsets to take on new promotion-enhancing opportunities.
- Are discouraged from being "too self-promoting," compared to their male colleagues.
- Are provided with less access or recommendations to the right kinds of networking opportunities that could lead to promotions.
- Are told that their desire, ambition, and assertiveness are selfish and off-putting because they don't align with expected “feminine” qualities of selflessness, being communal, and helping others.
- Continue to have insufficient role models to help them navigate these gender biases.
We've made so many strides toward addressing many past gender biases, but the above issues remain prominent, even in female-dominated industries, such as higher education and healthcare.
What should we do differently?
Addressing the following will not only help retain talented women in leadership roles, but will also naturally help all employees:
- Role model and teach boundary-setting around work. This might include things like enforcing a “no work” policy during specific times of the day to encourage taking lunch or a walk, having teams decide on a maximum number of team meetings, creating realistic deadlines, evaluating and stopping the habit of “false urgency” for projects, setting boundaries around appropriate email responsiveness timelines, limiting the number of channels of communication (e.g., phone, email, IM), discussing and encouraging self-care and team-care practices. The opportunities for improvement here are endless.
- Prioritize employee engagement and development over volume of work. The output will increase as a direct result of employees feeling more engaged and driven.
- Evaluate what your employees want when they request flexibility. It’s okay to be flexible in your “flexibility program” offerings. Note that to ensure equity, you also have to analyze whether there will be differences in career advancement outcomes between groups who choose more flexibility vs less.
- Stop offering programs that aim to fix women’s “faults.” Start offering real promotion-ready opportunities and supplement with appropriate support systems, including mentorship, coaching, access to decision-making groups, and other support systems already being provided to men.
- Train current leaders to be better mentors and coaches to emerging leaders. Once in a leadership position, some women will experience questions about their ability, some might need support with clarity in presenting to new groups, some will need time adjusting to being in higher visibility and higher risk roles, and some will more naturally thrive, just like any employee who is new to leadership. Instead of assuming they aren’t ready or can’t do it, find ways to ensure their leadership development needs are met appropriately. A great leader-coach can get the best out of their employees and improve or stabilize retention rates. A terrible one burns out their employees, overshadows and ignores their talent, and puts their needs above their employees.
- Don’t wait until the yearly stay interview or routine performance review. Engage in continuous leadership development coaching.
- Conduct a workplace assessment of gender diversity and equity practices. Who takes on the “household management” of your organization (e.g., note-taking, organizing events, addressing conflicts behind the scenes, offering a listening ear to upset employees). There is now ample evidence that women still take on most of these “chores” which adds a lot of additional unpaid work. Yet, companies with the best gender equity practices have higher employee retention, productivity, and financial outcomes. Workplace assessments will help an organization assess the level to which these disparities occur in order to make critical culture changes to help retain women.
Ely, R. J., Ibarra, H., & Kolb, D. M. (2011). Taking gender into account: Theory and design for women's leadership development programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(3), 474–493. https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2010.0046
Gray, D.E., De Haan, E. & Bonneywell, S. (2019). Coaching the 'ideal worker': Female leaders and the gendered self in a global corporation. European Journal of Training and Development, 43.7/8, 661-681.