HomeLearning CenterThe Great Breakup: Why Women Leaders Are Calling It Quits

The Great Breakup: Why Women Leaders Are Calling It Quits

And where they’re going.

Over the past two years, something contagious swept through the American workforce. We’re not talking about the pandemic, but rather the spread of an interesting sentiment: Employees grew detached from their jobs, and millions quit. This phenomenon, dubbed the Great Resignation, has been thoroughly dissected by economists, sociologists, workplace consultants, and in hundreds of thinkpieces. But a new report by Lean In and McKinsey has revealed a new facet of the trend. 

Its Women in the Workplace report, an annual survey of thousands of employees, found that women who’ve ascended to the top of their companies are leaving their posts at an unprecedented rate. The survey shows that for every woman at a director level who gets promoted, two women directors are choosing to quit. 

“I wish we were making more progress,” says Lean In CEO and co-founder Rachel Thomas.

Why we’re losing women leaders

Lean In is calling the mass departure of women leaders the “Great Breakup,” and Thomas believes a few different things are fueling it. One issue, that’s likely existed for as long as women have been in boardrooms, is that female leaders are more often the target of microaggressions — like having their competence questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior. These slights add up: Female employees report that microaggressions subtly undermine their authority and view them as a sign that it may be harder to advance in a work environment. 

Another long-standing issue is what Thomas calls the “double shift.” Studies show that as men rise up the ranks, they typically do less housework. The same isn’t true for most women, Thomas explains. So even with more responsibility at work, women are still expected to perform the bulk of the work at home, and spend more time caring for kids or relatives. That dynamic has stretched many high-ranking women thin.

But the pandemic changed the game. Within days, companies pivoted to allow their employees to work from home, having “embraced flexibility in a way that we never would’ve imagined pre-pandemic,” Thomas says. “Jobs that you never would’ve thought could be done remotely, all of a sudden we were doing remotely. Companies really rose to the moment,” she says. 

That gave women hours of their days back to spend with their families. And, according to the Lean In report, it’s had a tremendous mental benefit, too. Women reported that they face fewer microaggressions and experience higher levels of psychological safety. But with the threat of the virus subsiding, many corporations have rushed to return to the status quo. And many women are refusing to go back. In a recent survey, 68 percent of women said they prefer remote work, compared to 57 percent of men. “They don’t wanna go back to business as usual,” Thomas says. “They wanna continue moving forward as a workplace.”

Katie Couric Media

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