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Nov 1, 2022

A new study from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company finds that “women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate in years, and the gap between women and men leaders leaving is the largest we’ve ever seen. To put the scale of the problem in perspective: For every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two women directors are choosing to leave their company.”

Why is the situation so dire? The study finds that the pandemic has changed what women want from their employers, and the importance of career opportunities, flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity, and inclusion has increased significantly. 

In other words, women aren’t willing to tolerate a company not living all of the wonderful values it so proudly displays in the lobby and on its website.

None of this should come as a surprise, as numerous studies portended this issue. For example, the Leadership IQ study, “Why Company Values Are Falling Short,” revealed that employees are roughly 200% more engaged when a company actually lives its values. And sadly, the majority of organizations are not living their values: Only 24% of organizations have detailed which specific behaviors are necessary to live their company values, and only 33% of people believe that their direct manager holds people accountable to those values.

It’s not just corporate values where we see problems. From the online test “What’s Your Organizational Culture?,” we know that more than a quarter of leaders want an Enterprising culture. That culture is a meritocracy where the best idea always wins regardless of status or tenure, and creativity and intelligence are valued. Yet only a tenth of leaders actually work in such an organization. Nearly twice as many work in Hierarchical cultures, where hierarchies and tradition reign, and where people value and compete for power.

As noted above, the LeanIn and McKinsey study found that flexibility was very important to women leaders. It found that only “1 in 10 women wants to work mostly on-site, and many women point to remote and hybrid work options as one of their top reasons for joining or staying with an organization.” In a Hierarchical culture, where hierarchies and tradition are of paramount importance, companies are far less likely to embrace the flexibility that women leaders so clearly desire.

Furthermore, as LeanIn notes in the report, “In many companies, however, they [women] experience microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to advance.” The (often) white executives making decisions about working remotely have probably never experienced someone mistaking them for a junior employee or taking credit for their work, let alone the myriad sexist and racist comments so often heard by marginalized groups. 

In a Leadership IQ study on workplace discrimination, we learned that only 23% of women say that if they reported concerns about discrimination in the workplace, top leadership would always take meaningful corrective action. (Meanwhile, only 13% of Black employees feel that they can always report concerns about discrimination in the workplace without causing problems for themselves.)

While it’s easy to postulate about the benefits and costs of working remotely in a vacuum, it’s much tougher to accurately take the perspective of the people who might prefer that mode of working. As cited in the book The Deadly Sins Of Employee Retention, the frustrations that people face are far more impactful than any motivators they may experience.So, if your women leaders are being regularly discounted and ignored, no amount of diversity initiatives will offset their frustrations.

Therefore, when you’re trying to recruit more women leaders into your company, no pitch you give will offset the reality of the working environment. Your culture, values, etc., will far outweigh any pitch on your career site. So if you’re going to expend your political capital anywhere, changing the actual workplace will yield far better returns than any career-website window dressing.

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