Why Women Leave


By Caroline Turner

When I left the C-suite, it surprised people. I was “at the top of my game.” My kids were out of college so the hard part of juggling family and work was over. But I lacked the passion it took. I couldn’t name a cause of my decision to leave. It just felt like it was time to move on.

Then I began to notice how much company I had as a former successful woman executive. On the board of the Women’sVision Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting corporate women, I was one of several former C-level women. We knew we needed board members currently operating at that level. Many times, we’d bring on such a woman – only to have her decide to leave her job.

I began to reflect on what really caused me to leave. I studied the statistics and what experts said on this issue. I dug into the business case for engaging and retaining women. I learned that inclusive cultures have higher productivity and profitability. I also learned that companies with gender diversity in leadership have higher returns. In the interest of women and their employers, I wanted to understand why women leave and how businesses can keep them.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics and private research confirm that women leave their jobs at a higher rate than men. While women’s role in the family is a significant factor in the attrition rate of women, equally important is the general job dissatisfaction that women express.

Catalyst and the Center for Work-Life Policy research groups have studied the question of why women leave. 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.

Our culture naturally identifies leadership and excellence with masculine approaches. Awareness of the differences in masculine vs. feminine approaches to work, and appreciation for feminine ways of accomplishing results, can result in women feeling more valued.

The 2010 report “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited” shows 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. We know women as a group continue 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.

But 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! Second, 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 and push factors. If a woman doesn’t really like her job, she may be less willing or able to juggle work and family responsibilities. If she is fully engaged in her work, the juggling act may be worthwhile.

After family care, the largest cause cited by women who “off-ramped” is lack of enjoyment or satisfaction with their jobs. This category covers a host of conditions but includes lack of full “engagement.” Engagement (which has been convincingly linked with retention, productivity and profitability) may be an independent cause or may tip the scales against a woman juggling family responsibilities. Engaged employees feel a sense of belonging, inclusion and community. They like their jobs.

Obstacles to both can involve the “comfort principle” and an “unconscious preference” for how results are achieved. The comfort principle 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 us. Bringing this tendency and its impact to conscious awareness can lead to greater access for women.

The Off-Ramps study says that 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. People who feel “stalled” are likely to disengage and move on. The comfort principle can interfere with access to assignments that build experience, confidence and exposure. Unconscious preferences for masculine ways of getting results can negatively impact performance evaluations and therefore opportunities for promotion.

The good news: we know why women leave. We know the compelling business case for increasing retention of women. The bad news: the fixes aren’t easy. Reducing push factors involves changing organizational culture. It is hard enough to implement practices and procedures to assure the comfort principle and unconscious preferences aren’t negatively impacting women. But the fix also involves changing individual attitudes and “mind-sets.” Changing deeply held and unconscious beliefs is harder than changing practices and procedures. But that’s what is required to engage and retain women–and capture the payoff of gender diversity in leadership.

Caroline Turner is author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion. For more information, please visit differenceworks.com.

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