As American workers have reevaluated their lives and careers en masse in recent years, they've ushered in major workforce trends — from the "great resignation" to the "great reinvention" to "quiet quitting."
Now there's one more to add to that list. In what some are calling the "Great Breakup," women leaders — already underrepresented in corporate settings — are switching jobs at the highest rate in years, significantly more than men in leadership. They're ditching their companies for ones with more opportunities, flexibility and commitment to inclusion.
That's according to the 2022 Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company — the eighth annual iteration of the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. This year's study collected information from more than 330 companies, surveyed more than 40,000 workers and conducted interviews with women of diverse identities.
Rachel Thomas, the CEO of LeanIn.Org, says that while women leaders are just as ambitious as men, they are leaving their companies — for a number of reasons — at "the highest rate we've ever seen." For every woman at the director level who gets a promotion, two women directors are voluntarily leaving their organization, she tells Morning Edition.
"We really think this could spell disaster for companies," she says. "We already know women are underrepresented in leadership, and now companies are starting to lose the precious few women leaders they do have."
The findings describe a pipeline problem
For its eighth consecutive year, the study finds that the "broken rung" at the first step up to management still needs repairing: For every 100 men promoted from entry-level positions to management, just 87 women (and only 82 women of color) are promoted.
That means there are fewer women rising through the ranks into leadership, and fewer women to promote at every level. Only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 20 is a woman of color.
Companies have tried to make progress in recent years, Thomas says, but it's been slow going. In the meantime, women face numerous barriers to professional advancement, from belittling microaggressions — women leaders are twice as likely as men at their level to be mistaken for someone more junior, for example — to a lack of recognition for their work, especially related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Thomas says that compared to men, women managers are more likely to invest time and energy in checking in on their employees' workload and wellbeing, taking on mentorship roles and working on diversity initiatives outside their core job.
"Women and men leaders have the same business expectations on them in terms of producing results, generating revenue," she explains. "And then women leaders are really stepping up as great people managers and as champions of diversity, equity and inclusion. And we know employee companies prioritize that work, they want to see more of that being done. But interestingly enough, that important work is generally going unrecognized and unrewarded in most organizations."
While 93% of companies take business goals into account in managers' performance reviews, less than 40% do so for factors like team morale and progress on DEI goals, according to the survey.
And when women do get promoted, they struggle with work-life balance, Thomas says, likely because many are doing "a double shift at home." Internal research shows that women are far more likely to do most or all of the household work in their partnership, and Thomas says as women and men get more senior, senior men start doing less housework.
"So as you get more senior as a woman, you're doing more at home and, we would argue, doing more at work," she says.
Overall, women with traditionally marginalized identities are continuing to have worse experiences at work. For example: Latinas and Black women are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to report that their manager supports their career development, while LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities are much more likely than women overall to "hear critical comments about their demeanor and appearance," the survey finds.
Now many women are looking elsewhere for that flexibility, employee support and commitment to DEI.
"Women leaders are saying effectively, 'We've had enough,' " Thomas says. " 'We're ambitious. We want successful careers. But we're going to go look for organizations that are delivering the work culture that we also want.' "
Here's what companies can do
This isn't just a problem for women looking to rise to leadership roles now — it may also mean that companies will struggle to attract and retain women leaders in the future. The factors and priorities that are spurring women leaders to leave their companies now are even more valuable to the next generation, the report stresses.
"Young women are looking up at the women leaders in their company and it doesn't look good," Thomas says. "Two-thirds of women under 30 say they would be more interested in advancing if they saw leaders with the work-life balance they want."
There are steps that companies can take to advance, retain and recruit more women leaders.
The survey highlights the important role that managers play in promoting and supporting employees, and the need to close the gap between what's expected of managers and how they're actually being trained and rewarded. Only about half of women say their manager regularly encourages respectful behavior on the team, and less than half say their manager shows interest in their career and helps them manage their workload.
Thomas says that could look like giving managers more training and support, and also considering employee morale, retention and well-being in managers' performance reviews.
"And then what will happen ... is the women managers and women leaders that are more likely to be investing in well-being and more likely to be championing diversity, equity, inclusion, they'll actually get rewarded for that hard work they're doing, which will likely lead to more advancement and more money for those ... women leaders," she adds. "So it will set off, I think, a virtuous cycle in organizations."
Another key area is flexible work. The survey found that a vast majority of employees prefer remote or hybrid work, and more than 70% of companies surveyed say offering those options has helped them attract and retain more employees from underrepresented groups.
Only one in 10 women wants to work mostly on-site. The report says that's not just because of things like child care needs or commuting time: Women working in the office are almost 1.5 times as likely to experience demeaning and othering microaggressions compared to when they work mostly remotely.
"So, someone saying you look mad or you need to smile more, or hearing coworkers comment on your appearance in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable," Thomas explains. "All women, but particularly women of color and women with disabilities, they're experiencing less of that when they're outside of the office."
She says on the one hand, that's a good thing because it shows that women are finding ways to have a better day-to-day working experience at their organization — but on the other, it's an indictment of the workplace. That's why one of this year's big takeaways is that organizations should be making sure that remote and hybrid work can work for everyone. And employers should be investing in DEI efforts so that women feel respected and valued regardless of whether they're working out of a cubicle or their kitchen table.
The report highlights certain programs and policies that are commonly found in companies with a higher representation of women and women of color, based on an analysis of human-resource and DEI best practices.
Those include employee benefits — like personal leave for mental health care, support for miscarriage and extended leave for parents and caregivers — as well as formal career development opportunities, robust training for managers and practices for tracking data related to diversity and representation.
"We know that women leaders — and all women and actually, employees broadly — are really starting to place a lot of emphasis on working for an organization that values diversity, equity and inclusion, and invests in it and is committed to making sure our employees' day-to-day experiences feel good, that there's a real sense of well-being in their organization," Thomas says. "So from 10,000 feet, that's what organizations need to be focusing on."