18 May 2024

Why walk out on success?

Smart, successful women at the top of their game are heading off in search of more worthy challenges – and it’s time big business took notice, says former Netflix executive Sophie Williams

Recently, something interesting and rather remarkable has been happening, quietly, in the world of work. Women, more than ever before, have started to make the choice to leave their jobs, on their own terms – a trend that researchers are calling the Great Break-up.

Last year was dominated by the idea of our working habits having been forever changed as we emerged from the grip of covid. We read countless articles about “quiet quitting” and “lazy girl jobs” and we collectively planned ways to tone down our working scopes, or hand some of our more menial tasks over to AI assistants. But now, research is showing that we are in the midst of a new phenomenon – and one that’s all about women in leadership.

Research by Lean In looking at 40,000 employees from 333 companies across the US and Canada, found that 10.5% of female leaders had voluntarily left their jobs in the previous twelve months – the highest level of voluntary attrition for women ever seen. 

Whilst a figure of 10.5% may seem, at first glance, relatively low, it’s extremely significant, as the researchers noted: “To put the scale of the problem in perspective: for every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors are choosing to leave their company.” 

Rachel Thomas, CEO of Lean In, said in an interview with NPR: “Women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate we’ve ever seen. We already know women are under-represented in leadership, and now companies are starting to lose the precious few women leaders they do have.”

Stepping away 

Although new, the Great Break-Up is not confined to research papers, as in recent years we’ve all seen several high-profile women in the world of business decide to step away from their roles. In February 2023, Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube and one of Google’s earliest employees, said in a statement that she was leaving in order to “start a new chapter focused on my family, health, and personal projects I’m passionate about”. Just days before Wojcicki left Google, Meta confirmed their Chief Business Officer, Marne Levine, was stepping down from her role after thirteen years with the company, in order to “recharge and prioritize some quality time with family” before beginning her “next professional chapter”, making her the third high-profile female Meta C-suite leader to leave her position in quick succession (following the loss of Sheryl Sandberg as their COO in 2022 and the exit of their global ad chief in 2021).

In the world of politics, we saw the same thing happening, as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned from her role after eight years, and New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern stepped down and said she would not seek re-election as she had “no more in the tank” to lead the country.

The unexpected loss of this cohort of senior female leaders feels jarring and at odds with the story of gains and progress that we’re so used to women’s roles in the workplace being framed within. And it seems to have caught businesses by surprise. Yet we also know that people don’t make choices about their careers, especially risky ones, based on nothing. So, what’s really happening here? Why have so many talented, smart, and successful women, at the top of their games, who have done the hard work of breaking through the glass ceiling and forging successful careers choosing to throw in the towel in record numbers? And what does it mean for the businesses who are getting left behind?

Could it be that, in the aftermath of a pandemic world, we’re no longer infatuated with the romance of leadership? Or has living through this time of great change meant that there has also been a change in us, both in terms of what we are willing to give to the companies we work for, and what we expect from them in return?

Consultancy firm Deloitte looked into understanding the trend of more women choosing to leave their roles, surveying 2,100 employees and C-level leaders across the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. They found that nearly 70% of the professionals they spoke to were “seriously considering” quitting their current role in favour of finding a position that “better supports their wellbeing”. They also found, overall and unsurprisingly, that the pandemic has had a large and negative impact on our collective mental and physical health – meaning that wellbeing is at an all-time low for workers at all levels in their careers, with 40% of C-level leaders reporting, feeling overwhelmed, 30% feeling lonely, and 26% reported feeling depressed. 

It’s really no wonder, then, that more and more of us are making the choice to leave companies and ways of working that no longer serve us. I would argue that living through a global pandemic changed a lot for many of us. It forced us to take a moment to reassess and reevaluate all areas of our lives, both personal and professional, and seems to have left women with a new set of post pandemic priorities in the workplace. 

However, although these women are leaving their roles, they are not, by and large, leaving the workforce overall. So, what are women looking for in new opportunities, and what do smart businesses need to do to not only attract, but keep top tier female talent?

Why hang around?

The Lean In Foundation, and McKinsey & Company reported that the main reasons the female leaders cite for switching jobs are:

  • Wanting the opportunity to advance (48%)
  • Wanting flexibility (20%)
  • Wanting a company with a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) (18%)
  • Wanting to move away from an unsupportive manager (22%)
  • Being faced with an unmanageable workload (17%)

It really is nothing groundbreaking. Nothing unreasonable. Women, it seems, are reassessing their working lives, are taking their progression seriously, and are looking for businesses to match their values and respect their time. It seems that after years of giving and being overlooked, or trapped beneath the Glass Ceiling, women are starting to demand a return on their investment from their employers, and are tired of being held to higher standards, whilst receiving fewer rewards, than their male counterparts. 

Research shows that while both male and female leaders are expected to achieve business performance results in their roles, in terms of driving revenue and growth, women who are in leadership positions are also expected to pick up and take responsibility for the vast majority of DEI work within the businesses they work for. With women in leadership picking up twice as much work around DEI as their male peers.

“Women leaders are really stepping up as great people managers and as champions of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Thomas told NPR. 

“And we know employee companies prioritise that work, they want to see more of that being done. But interestingly enough, that important work is generally going unrecognised and unrewarded in most organisations,” she continued. 

While 93% of companies take business goals into account in managers’ performance reviews, fewer than 40% do so for factors like team morale and progress on DEI goals – despite businesses recognising their value and implicitly expecting women to invest working hours into these care-giving tasks for no reward. 

Female leaders today want, and expect, to get something back for the work they’re putting into their jobs, including flexibility, the opportunity to advance, and reasonable workloads.

Valerie Workman, Chief Legal Officer at Handshake, a job-search platform for college students and recent graduates, told CNBC: “They’re meeting their goals and being successful, and some are choosing to leave before they get burned out. It’s a phenomenal example for young women. That’s a success story.” And you know what? I think she’s correct.

We already know that all too often, working women are dismissed and undermined form the moment they take their first steps into the working world, as the Glass Ceiling artificially caps the potential of so many. When we add this struggle to progress the unexpected loss of women once they do reach the most senior levels by their own choice, as part of the Great Resignation, the result is that instead of improving the representation and visibility of women at the most senior levels of business, we’re instead looking likely to continue to run at a deficit. We are missing out on the ideas, contributions, perspectives and value that female leadership could offer us. That is, if businesses can’t, or aren’t willing to, shift and evolve to become better environments for women to invest their long term futures into. 

About the author

Sophie Williams is the author of ‘The Glass Cliff: Why Women in Power are Undermined and How to Fight Back’. Sophie is an ex Global Leader at Netflix and has held the titles of COO and CFO in London advertising agencies. She is also a TED speaker with over 1.5 million views, and the voice of Instagram’s @OfficialMilliennialBlack.

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