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When Women Leave Leadership, Address Root Causes Instead of Symptoms

A woman is walking down a hallway with a briefcase.

​Female leaders at the senior level and above are switching jobs at the highest rate ever seen—and at a higher rate than men in leadership, according to McKinsey & Co.'s Women in the Workplace 2022 report.

The report's findings are from a survey of more than 40,000 employees at 333 organizations and interviews with women of a variety of identities.

Retaining female leaders requires organizations to address the real reasons—not the myths—underpinning women's decisions to leave or opt out of leadership roles, according to Mira Brancu, author of Millennials' Guide to Workplace Politics: What No One Ever Told You About Power and Influence (Winding Pathway Books, 2021).

Citing the McKinsey research, Brancu noted that for every female director who is promoted to the next level, two female directors are choosing to leave their companies.

Brancu, a consulting psychologist and CEO and founder of consultancy Brancu & Associates in Carrboro, N.C., shared some common misperceptions about why a woman may choose to leave a leadership role:

  • She lacks the ambition to be a leader.
  • She is juggling too much with children at home.
  • She isn't negotiating for new roles.
  • She doesn't have the right leadership skills.
  • She isn't interested in being a leader (anymore).
  • She lacks confidence.
What these myths have in common, she said, is the message that "the problem is within the woman and therefore we need interventions to fix her … instead of [addressing] the root cause."

What organizations often do, she said, is:

  • Send the female leader to one-size-fits-all training or place her in a "fix her" model.
  • Over-mentor and under-sponsor her by offering "get along" advice versus strategic career advice.
  • Provide her with leadership or executive coaching from someone who lacks leadership or systems theory experience.
  • Place her on a gendered career focus or path.
  • "Punish" her with offers of extra work unaccompanied by promotional opportunities, bonuses or other compensation.

What Organizations Can Do Instead

"The reason we're losing women is because they feel undervalued, underutilized, overworked," Brancu said during a concurrent session at the SHRM INCLUSION 2022 conference in San Diego last month.

They experience these feelings, she noted, because of insufficient advancement opportunities, unequal treatment, misplaced support, misaligned values, microaggressions, broad return-to-office mandates and feelings of burnout.

Brancu likened leadership training to cultivating a garden where plants thrive.

"If you put [the seed] in the right soil, it would be more likely to grow," she said. "The soil is the immediate environment: the team. Some seeds need different nutrients, some need more water, some need less light. What if the toxic weed were allowed to sprout up? Would it be allowed to remain, grow … or would it be managed?

"Is there enough room in that garden for enough growth? Is the gardener nurturing every part of that garden? Is the gardener using different tools [that are unique to the plant's needs]? Is the gardener only tending to some [plants]?"

She suggested seven HR strategies organizations can use to retain women in leadership roles and help them thrive at the individual, team and organizational level:

  1. Support leadership development opportunities that honor experience. 

    "We know that women don't always travel in the same leadership pathways or see themselves in the same leadership pathway as men," Brancu said. "They go laterally; they go backwards to move forward; they take a pause, a break.

    "That is seen as a negative or a problem, and it's not," she continued. "In today's day and age, where navigating complexity is so important, being able to have multiple, different experiences within and outside of an organization in lots of different ways is actually a real strength."

    The point, she stressed, is to help women see other ways of performing as a leader.

  2. Support programs that emphasize creating and maintaining healthy, inclusive, high-performing teams.

    "Most organizations do not put their investment into team development when a team is OK," Brancu said. "They put their resources when a team has completely fallen apart and is an awful, toxic environment and the weeds have sprouted up and they bring somebody in" to fix it.

  3. Have policies that empower managers with the autonomy and flexibility their teams need.

    Every team needs a different level of autonomy, Brancu noted.

  4. Train team leaders on how to be great mentors, coaches, allies and sponsors.

    She pointed to a man she coaches who told her of a female direct report he wanted to promote, but she was reluctant to accept the position. "So I decided to let it go," he told Brancu. She urged him to have a conversation with the promotion candidate.

    "Do you know why she's reluctant?" Brancu asked him. "Have you found out more information—what is holding her back, what is she worried about, what is she concerned about? Can you provide her with the right tools and an environment for her to thrive?"

  5. As an organization, identify the root causes of women leaving leadership roles and use these assessments to make changes.

    Are they leaving the organization? Are they staying with the organization but not in a leadership role? Hold the organization accountable.  

  6. As an organization, sponsor programs that support healthy workplace culture.

  7. As an organization, teach allyship and sponsorship. 

Above all, though, she emphasized, "develop your supervisors as people leaders."

"They directly impact employees' careers … positively or negatively. Their messages carry weight," more so than executives', she said. "They can bypass some organizational gender bias or make it worse. They can minimize burnout or make it worse. They can create high-performing teams—if they want to—and they can improve or stabilize retention rates."

SHRM INCLUSION 2022 conference registrants can access this recorded session through Dec. 5.


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