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 to keep it up. 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 an organization (WomensVision Foundation) 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. And I began studying the statistics and what the experts said on this issue. I dug into the business case for engaging and retaining women; why this isn’t just a problem for women, but a problem for business. I learned that inclusive cultures have higher productivity and profitability. I learned that companies with gender diversity in leadership have higher returns. So in the interest of both women and their employers, I wanted to understand why women leave and how businesses can keep them.
That women leave their jobs at a higher rate than men is confirmed by data from the Bureau of Labor and by private research. 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.
Two research groups, Catalyst and the Center for Work-Life Policy, have studied the question of why women leave their jobs. 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.
The 2010 report Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited shows that the largest percentage of women who take “off-ramps” (detours from their career) cite child care as the reason; the second largest percentage cite eldercare. We know that women as a group continue to 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.
Family responsibilities are a very real and important cause of attrition among women. But focusing only on this issue won’t solve the problem. First, 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 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.
Employers can increase retention of women (and men) by designing flexible and alternative work schedules and assuring that they are not stigmatized. But they can’t have much impact on gender roles in our society. What will have the greatest impact on retention of women is to assure that women are engaged.
After family care, according to the Off-Ramps study, 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.
Women are more likely to feel engaged in a culture where they: 1) Have full access to formal and informal networks and 2) Feel valued for their way of achieving results. Obstacles to both can involve what I call 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 ourselves. Bringing this tendency and its impact to conscious awareness can lead to greater access for women.
Women may not feel valued if performance criteria are influenced by unconscious preferences for certain ways of doing things. 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 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 in succeeding. People who feel stalled are likely to disengage and move on. Both the comfort principle and unconscious preferences can influence whether a woman feels she can succeed. The comfort principle can interfere with access to critical assignments that build experience, confidence and exposure. Unconscious preferences for masculine ways of getting results can have a negative impact on performance evaluations and therefore opportunities for promotion.
The good news is that we know why women leave. And we know the compelling business case for increasing retention of women. The bad news is that the fixes aren’t easy. Reducing push factors involves changing organizational culture. It is hard enough to implement practices and procedures to assure that the comfort principle and unconscious preferences aren’t negatively impacting women. But the fix also involves changing individual attitudes and “mind-sets” (a term used in a recent article on this topic in the McKinsey Quarterly). 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 the author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity And Profitability Through Inclusion, available for purchase on Amazon and at other major online book retailers. For more information, please visit http://www.differenceworks.com.