Women executives leave the workforce faster than they are promoted

women executives exiting the workplace

Some women believe men are trying to hold women back. I disagree. But results from the 2023 Women in the Workplace report, conducted by McKinsey and LeanIn, suggest there’s work to do when it comes to creating a culture where women can thrive. And the only way we’re going to see real progress is through better representation.

Women are more ambitious than ever and are making progress when it comes to representation in the C-suite. But it’s not all good news. 

The 2023 Women in the Workplace report showed that women now occupy the highest proportion of top positions in history, making up 28 per cent of C-suite executives (six per cent are WOC). This was up six per cent compared to 2018, when women only held 22 per cent of C-suite positions. However, some of the other findings are concerning.

The gains we’re seeing are still modest, with the smallest gains at the manager, senior manager, and director levels, meaning the pipeline of women for leadership isn’t growing quickly enough. The gender gap continues to widen with each upward level in a company, even though women make up almost 50 per cent of entry-level employees. And the numbers are much worse for women of colour.

The great workplace breakup

What’s equally concerning is the trend we’re seeing continue from the 2022 report — what McKinsey calls the ‘Great Breakup’ — where women at the director level are leaving at a faster rate than they’re being promoted. 

For every woman promoted to director, two leave. 

This, along with the modest gains for women being promoted to manager and director levels, may have a catastrophic impact on our ability to narrow the gender gap in senior leadership. Without a pipeline, there simply won’t be enough female candidates in the pool to choose from.

There are a number of reasons behind this trend, but they all come down to the lack of inclusive work culture for women – everything from the microaggressions that women face daily and the harder time they have getting promoted compared to their male counterparts to needing more flexible work arrangements and wanting a culture that focuses on wellness and diversity and inclusion efforts.

At the end of the day, this is a culture problem, one that will be difficult to solve for companies that don’t have women at the senior leadership level.

If you read the book Lean In, you may remember Sheryl Sandberg’s story about having to walk across the massive Google parking lot while she was very pregnant and very uncomfortable. Google didn’t have pregnancy parking. After one particularly challenging trip, she walked into Sergey Brin’s office to tell him they needed pregnancy parking. Ideally immediately.

Sergey and the rest of Google management weren’t trying to make women uncomfortable. They just hadn’t thought of it… because they had never been pregnant and no one had brought it to their attention before.

But what if Sandberg had been an entry-level employee? Would any change have taken place?

This story tells us so much about the issues with well-meaning but homogeneous leadership teams. It’s almost impossible to anticipate the needs of all of your employees when your lived experience is different from theirs. And that’s why we need to seriously tackle the gender gap in senior leadership, as this gap will continue to perpetuate itself without some significant intervention.

The challenge is this feels a bit like a chicken and egg problem: we need more women promoted to leadership and we need them to stay there, and the way to do that is to have more women in leadership. Hmmmm.

But there are things we can do. Here are three places to start:

1. Focus on the broken rung. We see this gap begin to form early in women’s careers, with 87 women being promoted into their first management position for every 100 men. As we close this first gap, we’ll start to increase the pool of women in middle management.

2. Provide leadership development for women earlier in their careers.

We know that women often don’t put themselves forward for promotions if they don’t feel they meet all of the criteria. So provide better training and coaching to help build their confidence and their skills.

3. Intentionally hire more first-time female VPs and SVPs.

We’ve heard this before: men are promoted based on potential and women based on experience. Part of the challenge with women getting to senior leadership is finding someone to give them that first shot.

These are longer-term solutions. In the meantime, companies can start to get more women involved in workplace culture and DEI initiatives today. Ensure women at all levels are heard and represented when forming decisions about how to make things better.

The future of women in leadership may depend on it.