OPINION | Why senior women are quitting their jobs

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Women are switching jobs at the highest rate ever, according to a new report. Now, for every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors leave. The path forward is clear, writes Linda Saunders.

When it comes to women and leadership, the paradox — and the data — are clear.

Companies recruit men and women in near-equal numbers out of college. In fact, they’ve outnumbered men in the workforce every year since 1990. When it comes to leadership skills, women consistently score higher than men in key competencies, like taking initiative and driving for results. 

So why are only 8.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs women?

It’s not because they’re less capable of running businesses. Research actually proves the opposite: women-led organisations are more profitable and more innovative

Despite these statistics, women are switching jobs at the highest rate ever, according to a new report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey. Now, for every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors leave. Researchers are calling it the "Great Breakup", and say the reasons are clear: women aren’t promoted as often as men, they’re overworked and under-recognised, and they don’t feel supported in their companies’ cultures.

A growing number of CEOs know they aren’t doing enough to leverage the wealth of experience and education that their women employees have. And they’re eager to build a more equitable workplace amidst a competitive war for talent. 

To do this, companies need to uncover the reasons why women leave to fulfil their potential elsewhere. Here, we share what companies need to do next.

Step 1: Get granular to identify the real choke points

Women’s representation in management is improving. But a closer look at the granular data reveals problems that go deeper than surface-level demographics. Between entry-level jobs and senior leadership, for example, women of colour’s representation drops off to over 75%.

Go deeper into employee data and get precise about where the problems are. Analysing by location, department, and role is a great place to start. But don’t stop there: Instead, slice and dice the data further and add variables like racial background, age, sexual orientation, and ability. That should clarify the areas needing attention.

Now there’s a starting point, set goals based on benchmarks from trustworthy sources like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Also, consider data from industry groups or reputable consulting and research firms. Internal company data and third-party organisations can help employees tasked with building gender equity deliver efficient (and effective) support.

Step 2: Care for the entire employee lifecycle

The stereotype is that most women leave their jobs to care for family members. But data proves the reality is far different: many women leave jobs to take roles that offer more responsibility or higher pay. That’s no surprise, considering half of women report losing out on promotions, despite meeting all qualifications. Another half report being paid less than their industry counterparts. And for some, flexibility has become a must-have: 40% of working women report actively looking for a new job to take advantage of remote or hybrid work policies.

The message for CEOs is clear. To value and empower women, employers must care for them during the full employee lifecycle.

Reevaluate recruitment and application processes

Start by focusing on the universities and recruiters with a history of attracting the most qualified women candidates. Form a hiring committee with members representative of the diverse company culture you want to build. Empower them with the right training so the interview process is free from micro-aggressions and bias. Track progress closely to find out when and why women drop out of the hiring funnel.

Prioritise work-life solutions that matter 

Significant enthusiasm gaps exist between men and women’s attitudes about fair pay, healthcare, family leave, and flexible scheduling. Consider the ways biased attitudes influence current policies, keeping in mind that upgrading them will allow for the women in your workforce to feel fully empowered as employees and as individuals outside of work.

Improve retention with equal access to promotions and fair pay

Ensure fair treatment with analyses that get to the heart of why people leave their jobs. Compare the length of time it takes for women and men to earn promotions. Perform a pay equity analysis. Examine turnover rates between men and women with a deep dive into the differences between departments, roles, locations, racial backgrounds, religions, and other demographics.

Step 3: Bridge the skills gap

Saying "good job" isn’t enough: half of women professionals report receiving ineffective feedback from managers. Women are eager to know specifics about how they can improve, why they aren’t being promoted, and what they can do about it. 

Build tailored promotion plans that maintain enthusiasm

Customise career progression pathways for women that map to broader organisational goals, build leadership skills, and fill skills gaps. Partner high-potential women with high-level decision-makers in formal mentorship programmes. Give stretch assignments. Deliver in-the-moment training with a tool like myTrailhead so women can learn in the moments that matter most. 

Put more emphasis on soft skills

Data shows women often excel at building trust, collaborating with partners, and leading with empathy. Reconsider the ways leadership soft skills make businesses more profitable.

Take the next step

Finally, hold executives and organisations accountable for fairness in the workplace. Including a gender equity statement as part of a mission statement is something 68% of women professionals support.

Track and report efforts over time, remembering to follow the data so executives can address problems as soon as they arise. Following granular trends will show women in the workforce that executives are serious about their capabilities and contributions, and will lead a company to a more profitable, innovative future.

Linda Saunders, Director Solution Engineering, Salesforce South Africa. News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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