Female Execs Are Exhausted, Frustrated And Heading For The Exits

Exodus of Gen X women leaders is a setback for the decades-long effort to diversify corporate America’s top ranks.
Empty boardroom. (Image: freepik)
Empty boardroom. (Image: freepik)

The data alarmed employers and economists as the shock waves of the pandemic hit the US. Women were leaving their jobs in droves. By the end of 2020, their share of the labor force had fallen to its lowest level since 1987.

Two years later, the female participation rate is steadily returning to pre-pandemic levels. Problem solved? Not exactly.

Another one is festering below the surface: Many senior-level women, exhausted and torn between their career ambitions and personal lives, are now bowing out. Some are switching to less demanding positions or changing industries, while others are giving up lucrative paychecks and simply walking away, raising troubling issues for the decades-long national effort to diversify the top ranks of corporations. Several recent studies have documented the same disturbing trend—which government data isn’t fully capturing.

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Reshma Saujani, founder of groups that support female advancement including Girls Who Code, says working women are no longer willing to tolerate companies that don’t support them in their roles as mothers. The exodus of women in leadership roles “should really be a wake-up call for corporate America.”

A 2022 survey that McKinsey & Co. conducted for women’s advocacy group LeanIn.Org—started by Sheryl Sandberg, who in 2022 departed as chief operating officer of Meta Platforms Inc.—found that women leaders were leaving companies at the highest rate since the groups began collecting data in 2017. “This is wildly problematic for organizations because women are still underrepresented,” says Rachel Thomas, LeanIn.Org’s chief executive officer. “So now companies are losing their few precious leaders on top of that.”

A March 1 study by Chief, a private network of women executives where the majority of members are sponsored by their employers, and the IBM Institute for Business Value identified an equally worrisome problem: The pipeline for female leaders has also hollowed out in the middle, with a smaller share of women in vice president and senior vice president roles than before the pandemic.

Besides Sandberg, the list of high-level resignations includes YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent female leaders who also helped create Google’s advertising business. Amy Hauk, brand CEO at Victoria’s Secret & Co. and its sister company, Pink, is departing after less than a year on the job, during which she helped oversee a major restructuring. In the political arena, two of the world’s most formidable female leaders, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, surprisingly announced their resignations in recent weeks, both citing burnout.

The problem has become so acute that companies ­including Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have launched or expanded programs called “returnships,” the name for a variety of strategies that help make jobs more appealing to women and other people who’ve left the workforce, including placing them back into midlevel or senior roles.

Labor market experts say the extra duties assumed during the pandemic by many Gen X women—those born from 1965 to 1980—are taking a belated toll. The surprise is that data from the US Department of Labor showed women in that demographic were less likely to leave the workplace during the pandemic. At its start, Jennie Blumenthal led a 250-person team as a partner with consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, helping companies in the collapsing leisure and hospitality industry reinvent themselves. She found the work grueling but rewarding—with the side benefit that she no longer spent the workweek on airplanes and in hotels away from her kids.

Yet once the initial shock of the crisis passed and her responsibilities became more sales-driven, Blumenthal, 45, says she felt disconnected from the work. Having the time at home also gave her an opportunity to reflect on her career track. She quit her job in October 2020 and started a business coaching female executives. She also interviewed 300 executives facing similar challenges for a book, , in which she shares their stories and offers guidance on how to reassess career paths. “I got to a point where I was just experiencing extreme burnout,” Blumenthal says. “But my burnout was really twofold. It was the time and energy in terms of huge hours, but it was also this disconnection from purpose that I didn’t realize I felt until we were in the middle of the pandemic.”

After decades of private and public efforts to move more women into top corporate roles, the departures threaten to shrink the pipeline that feeds the next generation of women into C-suite jobs. Such efforts have been showing results at the CEO level of late: According to data compiled by Bloomberg, the number of women helming companies in the S&P 500 climbed 32% in the past year. But that means there are now a grand total of 41 women running the US’s biggest companies, up from 31 a year ago.

Even though government data don’t track the status of women in various senior roles as private-sector groups do, the US’s stats are starting to reflect the stalled progress. Only 29.2% of chief executives were women in 2022, a number that’s barely budged since 2020, when it was 29.3%, according to the Labor Department. Counting all management occupations, women make up 40.5%, down slightly from 2021’s 40.9%.

Those figures are only poised to get worse. The October LeanIn.Org report said that for every woman at the senior manager level who gets promoted, two leave. Using data from 333 organizations and surveys of 40,000 people in the US and Canada, the report found that, in the five years since 2017, the share of C-suite jobs held by women increased by only 6 percentage points to 26%. Of those, a mere one in 20 are women of color.

Stress and exhaustion were the biggest problems women cited. More than half of female employees at the senior manager level and above said they were responsible for most or all of their family’s housework and child care, compared with 13% of men at the same level. Respondents said they also did more than male colleagues at work to support employee well-being and to foster diversity and inclusion, resulting in better retention and employee satisfaction. But such efforts often aren’t acknowledged in performance reviews.

It’s no wonder that 43% of women leaders said they were burned out, compared with 31% of men at the same level. “There’s a collective exhaustion,” says Allison Robinson, founder and CEO of the Mom Project, which helps mothers who want to return to the workforce but need a more flexible environment.

For years, the advice women received centered around steps they could take, such as seeking out mentors. Now there’s a growing awareness that companies need to make structural changes to help them thrive at work and at home. “What we needed was control over our schedules. We needed gender-neutral paid leave. We needed supported child care. We needed to be paid equitably,” says Saujani, who is also the founder and CEO of Moms First, a nonprofit that advocates for women’s economic freedom. “We were focused on the wrong things.”

Plagued by labor shortages, companies are experimenting with returnships. Some offer paid temporary positions as an on-ramp to women who might consider coming back. Tami Forman, executive director of Path Forward, which helps start such programs, says she’s worked with dozens of companies, including Amazon, Disney and Allstate, since 2016. Forman says her corporate partners on average convert 80% of returnships to full-time positions.

An Amazon returnship allowed Arathi Shankri to resume her career as a software engineer in 2021 after spending two years out of the workforce to focus on her family and three years teaching programming at a community college. When Shankri, 46, wanted to move back into the tech industry in a software job, she found that companies didn’t appreciate her teaching experience and were slow to respond to inquiries. But the 16-week Amazon program allowed her to use expertise she had developed over 17 years.

Amazon has now hired Shankri full time and given her wider responsibilities, including managing teams and leading large-scale projects. “Just because you paused, you don’t have to take a step back,” she says. “You can just continue from where you left off.”

(Updates the description of Chief in the 6th paragraph.)

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