Women are leaving senior leadership — and that’s a problem for equality

Women are experiencing greater burnout and leaving leadership roles at the highest rate ever, impacting DEI efforts today, but also the talent pipeline for tomorrow.

Women are leaving senior leadership — and that’s a problem for equality

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many big headlines about women’s roles and experiences in the U.S. workforce. Women workers are showing 32 percent more burnout than men, and even more concerning for the future of leadership equality; women leaders are leaving their organizations at the highest rate ever.

If this trend continues, it has the potential to unwind decades of progress toward gender equity and increased female leadership in the workplace. It also can have negative consequences on the junior employees who remain — if the C-suite loses a diverse perspective, and mentorship, sponsorship, and DEI efforts suffer, the younger generation loses out on seeing senior-level role models within their organization.

We recently took a deep dive into our extensive workforce data and uncovered some of these gaps, which are particularly stark in technical roles. This research can help point us toward solutions for growing inequality in the workplace, creating stronger, healthier businesses and more economic growth.

A glass ceiling on every floor

According to Eightfold data, for the same level of education and experience – and controlling for race, women are 6 percent less likely to hold a managerial position (entry, middle or senior-level management) at an organization than their male counterparts. If we examine individuals who are already in a managerial position, for the same level of education and experience, women have a 4 percent reduced probability of reaching a middle or senior-level managerial position. They’re also 4 percent more likely to remain at an intermediate position and 9 percent more likely to remain at an entry-level position than men.

Our data also shows that the pipeline for women to enter into senior leadership is in jeopardy and getting worse. We found that at each level of experience, women hold a significantly smaller share of the makeup than they did pre-pandemic. Those with the highest level of experience (21 to 45 years) dropped from 41 percent to 33 percent from 2019 to 2022, and from 49 percent to 40 percent of workers with 11 to 20 years of experience. The share of early-career women fell a full 10 percent from 50 to 40 percent. If fewer young women are entering the workforce, the gap at the highest levels will only widen further.

Although more women are in the C-suite and on executive boards than ever before (12 percent for each), some of the most powerful women are quitting. How bad is it? For every woman stepping into a director-level leadership role, two are choosing to leave. Even when women overcome the odds of reaching the highest levels, they’re finding their roles unsustainable. According to Lean In and McKinsey data, 43 percent of women leaders reported feeling burned out, compared to 31 percent of men.

Tech’s gaping gap

The good news about women’s representation in engineering and technical roles is that it’s slightly higher than it was before the pandemic. The bad news is that it only grew from 23 percent in 2019 to 24 percent in 2022, according to our research. Women are still massively underrepresented in technical jobs, which are among the highest-paying and fastest-growing in the U.S. economy.

Without deliberate measures to reduce the gender gap in tech, it will self-perpetuate. Women who are vastly outnumbered by male colleagues are more likely to encounter bias and have more negative daily work experiences. This can discourage them from staying in or other women from entering the field, and those who do will have few if any, senior-level role models.

Layoffs and losing sight of DEI

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are necessary to close opportunity gaps in tech for women as well as for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. DEI is also profitable — according to an analysis of our data, organizations that had greater revenue in the period from 2019 to 2021 also had a greater share of women in the workplace than their industry peers. IBM found similar results: organizations identified as gender-equity leaders report 19 percent higher revenue growth than others in their sample.

Unfortunately, even tech companies that embrace DEI principles are deprioritizing it when faced with budget cuts and downsizing. DEI leaders are leaving or being laid off from their teams, and positive results of DEI efforts are backsliding in tougher times.

Additional analysis of 2022 Eightfold data indicates that a woman was, on average, 8 percent more likely to be laid off than a man across all industries and 6 percent more likely to be laid off in the tech industry.

The current wave of layoffs is disproportionately hurting underrepresented groups and could be even more harmful in the long run, if it pushes women and BIPOC to leave the sector altogether. Even in widespread downsizing, we cannot fail to recognize the needs or underlying issues of retaining a diverse workforce and inadvertently “reshuffle” diverse perspectives out of tech.

We can get back on course

Despite the troubling backslide of the past few years, workplace inequality is only inevitable if organizations let the status quo guide decisions. Organizations need to go beyond good intentions and look at where the opportunity and advancement gaps exist, using that data to build a systematic approach to developing the next generation of leaders.

For example:

  • Redesigning positions to achieve an organization’s goals and initiatives, rather than to fit a preconceived talent profile, can help emerging pay transparency and ensure that existing gender gaps in salary are closed rather than perpetuated.
  • Reconstructing leadership tracks to include all types of roles in the early stages can break up limited or predictable promotion paths.
  • Controversial representation goals can be replaced with thoughtful succession planning that integrates DEI principles.
  • Considering related and adjacent skills and hiring outside your industry (think other industries hiring recently laid-off tech workers for their skills) is another way to support and elevate highly skilled, diverse talent in senior roles.

The loss of women in leadership across organizations is an economic crisis because it has far-reaching implications for an engaged workforce and equitable wealth creation. Leaders who commit to fixing gender imbalances will help drive revenue, innovation, retention, brand image, and profitability, and organizations that understand this will be rewarded in the long run.

Sania Khan is the chief economist at Eightfold AI, the AI-powered platform for all talent, and the author of the upcoming book Think Like an Economist. She previously worked for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This article originally appeared on Inc. in April.

You might also like...