Women leave their jobs at a higher rate than men. This is confirmed by data from the Bureau of Labor and by private research. There are three reasons business leaders need to understand why women leave. All are reasons to engage women so they’ll stay:
1. Turnover has a significant cost—estimates range between 50 and 200% of annual salary (plus negative impact on morale and performance).
2. Fully half of the total workforce and of the hiring pool (more than half of the educated hiring pool) is female—so the group at greatest risk of leaving is large.
3. Gender diversity in leadership has been correlated with higher returns (see studies by Catalyst and McKinsey); if you are losing women, you are probably losing the upside of gender diversity.
If you know why women leave, you can design solutions to avoid these costs and capture these upsides. Two research groups, Catalyst and the Center for Work-Life Policy have studied the question of why. Both separate the causes into “pull factors”—things that draw women away from a job—and “push factors”—negative aspects of the work environment that make them want to leave. Based on this research, here are the top three reasons—and the reasons you should focus on #2 and #3!
Reason #1: Family Responsibilities
The 2010 report, “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited” shows that the largest percentage of women who take “off-ramps” (detours from their career) cite child care as the reason; the second largest percentage cite elder-care. I group them as they both involve family responsibilities. The fact that the representation of women in the workforce has continued to grow has not changed the fact that women as a group handle more family responsibilities than their male partners. Caring for young children (or parents) and climbing the corporate ladder at the same time is a tough juggling act.
So this reason is very real and very important. But the biggest bang-for-the-buck in increasing retention of women does not come from focusing on family responsibilities.
• This cause is exaggerated. Both men and women use the phrase, “Want to spend more time with the family” as a politically acceptable reason to leave a position. It does not burn bridges. They may not say what the real reason is!
• Family responsibilities often become a cause of a decision to leave only when there are other factors. The “off-ramps” study notes that the reasons any one leaves a job often involve a mix of pull factors and push factors. Reasons #2 and #3 can make women less willing or able to juggle work and family responsibilities.
• Employers have limited ways to affect this area. (A Catalyst study on this issue concludes, “Employers have little effect on pull factors,” citing work by WFD Consulting.) There are resources (including Center for Work-Life Policy) to help employers design flexible and alternative work schedules. (Employers who have good policies must be sure they are not stigmatized.) But employers won’t quickly change gender roles in our society.
The biggest payoff in trying to increase retention of women comes from focusing at least as much energy on #2 and #3.
Reason #2: Not Feeling Satisfied (Engaged)
After family care, the largest cause cited by women who “off-ramped” is lack of enjoyment or satisfaction with their jobs. Job satisfaction covers a host of conditions but indicates lack of “engagement,” which has been convincingly linked with retention, productivity and profitability. An engaged employee feels a sense of belonging, inclusion and community. Women are more likely to feel engaged and included in a culture where they have full access to formal and informal networks and where their way of accomplishing results is valued.
Low job satisfaction can involve what I call the “comfort principle,” which can bar women from inclusion in social activities, good projects and mentoring relationships. The “comfort principle” is the natural tendency to spend time with (and mentor and give work to) those most like ourselves. Unawareness of this tendency keeps this barrier in place.
Women may not feel valued if performance criteria are influenced by “unconscious preferences” for certain ways of doing things. Our culture naturally identifies leadership and excellence with masculine approaches. Lack of awareness of the differences in masculine vs. feminine approaches to work, and lack of appreciation for feminine ways of accomplishing results, can result in women feeling less valued.
Reason #3: Feeling Stalled
The factor next in line as a cause of women’s departure from a job is feeling “stalled.” People are naturally more engaged if they feel they can succeed and are supported in succeeding. People who feel “stalled” are likely to disengage—and move on. The same factors that affect whether a woman feels included can influence whether she feels she can succeed. The “comfort principle” can interfere with access to critical assignments that build experience, confidence and exposure. Unconscious preferences for masculine ways of getting results can have a negative impact on performance evaluations and therefore opportunities for promotion.
Good News/Bad News
The good news is that we know why women leave. And we know the compelling business case for increasing retention of women. The bad news is that the fixes aren’t easy. Reducing push factors involves changing organizational culture. It is hard enough to implement practices and procedures to assure that the “comfort principle” and “unconscious preferences” aren’t negatively impacting women. But the fix also involves changing individual attitudes and “mind-sets” (a term used in a recent article on this topic in McKinsey Quarterly).
Changing deeply held and unconscious beliefs is harder than changing practices and procedures. But that’s what is required to achieve—and capture the payoff of—gender diversity in leadership.