The barriers to advancement that women face in the workplace have been well-documented.
However, a new report by Linkage, a women's leadership development firm acquired by SHRM, revealed that many organizations aren't listening to or addressing these challenges fast enough, leaving women feeling dissatisfied with their companies.
The findings, collected from a survey of more than 3,000 women, showed that women who ascend to director or senior director are less likely than they were earlier in their career to recommend their employer as "a great place for women leaders to work."
"This is a huge leadership pipeline problem for organizations," said Kristen Howe, Linkage's chief product officer. "Not just for filling positions at the senior level, but also as junior women look up and don't see themselves reflected in the senior leadership."
Howe noted that the dissatisfaction women have with their organizations can be attributed to several factors, including their employers not understanding their professional needs—such as women being less likely than men to have mentors or sponsors—and the inherent bias toward women that permeates many workplaces.
The survey comes after a 2022 SHRM report showed that women who are promoted to managers become more likely to believe women in their company are given fewer opportunities for upward career growth and that just half of HR professionals believe senior leaders in their companies are held accountable for ensuring equal access to opportunities that result in leadership roles.
Burnout, Lack of Flexibility Causing Women to Leave
Federal data indicates that more than 1 million women left the labor force from February 2020 to January 2022, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even as the pandemic has subsided, companies are still struggling to retain female workers, particularly women in leadership positions.
Flexibility has shown to be a catalyst in women staying or leaving. A 2022 report by McKinsey and Co. revealed that female leaders are significantly more likely than male leaders to leave their jobs due to lack of flexibility.
Remote-work options and flexible scheduling have led to women experiencing fewer microaggressions and higher levels of psychological safety, per the McKinsey report. They also help women avoid another rising issue among female employees: burnout.
About 43 percent of female respondents expressed feelings of burnout at their current workplace, according to the 2022 SHRM report. This aligns with a recent survey of more than 10,700 workers by Slack's Future Forum consortium, which found that women are 32 percent more likely than men to experience burnout.
Burnout can lead to a negative attitude, a lack of productivity, high stress and a lack of teamwork. Burnout and exhaustion have caused women, particularly female leaders, to leave the workplace in large numbers.
"Seventy percent of women are confident they are equally to more qualified than their male peers but are getting less recognition and promotion for the work they are doing, including carrying the disproportionate share of creating inclusive empathetic workplaces," Howe said. "This all leads to burnout."
How Companies Can Better Support Women
The Linkage report notes that employers must understand the support and upward mobility opportunities their female employees require to help them rise through the ranks. Organizations can support the needs of female workers in several ways:
- Define the benchmark. Many companies falsely assume that women have enough opportunities. When employers create a clear course of action for women and enhance leadership diversity, these workers tend to stay longer, advance faster and are more engaged. Look at the actual numbers of women leaders in your workforce.
- Implement a formal sponsorship program. Informal sponsorship isn't good enough because executives tend to sponsor workers who are similar to them, Howe said. Sponsorships can equip women with the tools and knowledge to advance in their careers.
- Enable women to overcome hurdles. Women often ask for more leadership development specific to the challenges they face, such as lack of networking opportunities. Company leaders should take time to learn more about these challenges and identify ways to help women overcome them.
Jennie Yang, vice president of people and culture at 15Five, a performance management platform in San Francisco, said women often do not ascend the leadership pipeline due to the patriarchal beliefs, biases and favoritism that often occur among male-dominated leadership teams.
"Companies can take proactive steps to help women ascend professionally by addressing unconscious bias, promoting gender diversity, providing mentorship and sponsorship, and fostering an inclusive culture," she said. "HR and people leaders play a key role in developing the programs for leadership, management, and team members to ensure women feel seen, heard, valued and rewarded for their contributions."