Women’s History Month has inspired me to look back on my history, specifically in management. My first management position was in 1985 and I have been a people and project manager in various organizations ever since. Unfortunately, this is not the norm for many women throughout their careers.

In the United States, women were nearly half (47.0%) of the labor force, but only slightly over a third (40.0%) of managers in 2019. In the 20 companies I have worked for since 1985, I have only ever had one female manager. In the C-suite, at the close of 2020, women held only 7.8% of CEO positions. In my career, not a single company had a female CEO (unless it was me!).

Are women being offered fewer management positions? Yes, according to a Catalyst study, which states, “If first-level women managers were hired and promoted like men, there would be 1 million more women in management over the next five years.” However, the issue goes deeper. Women in management tend to quit more often than men. 31% of women leave their positions versus 24% of men, and at the C-suite level, it’s worse: 24% vs 7%, according to the Network for Executive Women. I’ve witnessed it throughout my career. Talented women at all levels make choices to step out, step down, or not put their hat in the ring for the next promotion.

So, why are women quitting?

Burnout

Often, it boils down to exhaustion. Due to high expectations at work and home, women become exhausted and burned out. Gendered home roles are still the norm despite the current ‘woke’ culture. According to Forbes, “Working women are twice as likely as their male counterparts to run the household, three times more likely to manage their children’s schedules, and eight times more likely to require time off to care for a sick child. They’re also three times as likely to volunteer for school or community activities.” All these expectations are, of course, on top of women’s regular employment. Part of my own decision to not have children was an early recognition that an ambitious career and having babies – particularly before reaching a certain level of financial security – do not easily mix.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the burnout issue. At a senior level, women are 1.5 times more likely than men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. They cite burnout as a major reason.

Source: Women in the Workplace 2020, McKinsey & Company

Ironically, this crisis for women is also a disaster for corporate America. The Financial Times, quoting a recent report by the Peterson Institute, reported a “company with 30% female leadership could expect to add up to six percentage points to its net margin when compared with a similar business with no female leaders.” With a disproportionate number of women looking to downshift their roles, these potential corporate benefits will not be realized.

Held to higher performance standards

But it’s not just a problem with children and burnout. Many working women are single, without children, and do have supportive spouses. There are other factors at play here.

In particular, women holding senior-level positions often report being held to higher performance standards than male counterparts. They are more likely to be blamed for failures and suffer pressures such as harsher judgments and criticisms, that often come from being the only woman in the room.

Set up to fail: the glass cliff

Equally disturbing is the so-called “glass cliff”. Researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, in this podcast, found that women who are seeking a CEO position are “significantly more likely than white men to be promoted CEO in weakly performing firms.” And “More than a third of women CEOs have been targeted by shareholder activists, and that’s not true of men.” The glass cliff effect has been found in other walks of life too — in political elections, where women are more likely to find themselves in unwinnable contests.

Supporting female employees

So how can companies help female employees to win? Ideas such as increasing paid leave programs, internal compensation studies with the intent to provide equal pay, and programs that promote mental health and well-being could all go a long way to easing financial stressors while increasing employee wellness. Companies need to adopt new flexibility norms and hold all employees to the same standards. Women need to become more aggressive in managing their careers and commit for the long term.

I personally have devoted energy to two very tangible goals: interns, and mentors. 

Young women, as well as people from disadvantaged backgrounds, don’t easily find out about, let alone obtain, positions as interns. Yet, as we in the tech world know, this is an immensely useful steppingstone to a fruitful and rewarding career.

As a female manager, I always lacked female role models and mentors were scarce. In my experience, male employees more easily find a mentor to learn from. Encouraging mentorship is something I have actively addressed in my senior management career, and I believe with some success.

Supporting interns and encouraging mentorship is not difficult, it doesn’t need a corporate program, it’s up to you!

  • HG Insights believes that giving women equal opportunities to pursue and thrive in STEM careers helps narrow the gender pay gap, enhances women’s economic security and ensures a diverse and talented STEM workforce, and prevents biases in these fields and the products and services they produce. Learn more about careers at HG Insights here.