A Good Woman Is Hard to Keep

Where has all your young female talent gone? To your competitors, for starters. Here’s why.

By Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., and Annie Rodgers

If you ever need to illustrate the glaring lack of female leadership at the top of organizations, any number of statistics can help you make your case.

Take your pick: Last year, only 25 of the Fortune 500 companies—just 5 percent—had female CEOs, and one has since resigned. Or how about over in the U.K., where a scant six women lead the 100 companies that make up the FTSE Index?

While this problem persists at the highest levels of organizations, the root starts in the early ranks. If we don’t succeed at developing and retaining young female talent, there won’t just be fewer candidates for c-suite positions—there won’t even be enough women to climb up the lower rungs of the ladder. It’s time to find the solution.

Sign up for the monthly TalentQ Newsletter, an essential roundup of news and insights that will help you make critical talent decisions.

Ruling Out Potential Causes

The threshold of entry into the working world isn’t the issue, as women earn more undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States than men. Those well-earned grades are amply rewarded as companies, now wiser about how to source diverse talent, recruit almost half of women into entry positions.

Of course, not everyone will rise in the hierarchy, and some attrition is normal. But we do expect the proportion of promotions across gender at each level to reflect the proportion of men and women recruited in that year. For most companies, this isn’t true.

Here’s the stark reality: When women hit their early 30s, they start running for the exits, leaving organizations in significantly higher proportions than men.

Most women will blame work-life balance as the chief reason for their departure. Senior executives will then use the convenient excuse of family to wash away responsibility.

In our experience, these rationalizations don’t come close to telling the real story. The average age of having your first child in professional circles is about 35. Women, however, are quitting way ahead of the gift and challenge of parenting, so it isn’t a question of swapping the prospect of the boardroom for the baby buggy.

For our ambitious group of women who have made it to corporate jobs, many will have invested in an advanced degree or undertaken an MBA by this stage. They’ve also made great sacrifices in time and money to further their learning and development. If these women are self-motivated and driven to keep their personal scorecards gleaming, then why, exactly, do they leave?

The Cost of Premature Departures

Have you tracked where the women in your organization actually end up when they leave for work-life reasons? If your company is like most of our clients, then you won’t like the answer: They land with your competitors. The courting period is over, the romance is dead, and they’re ditching you for another lover.

How dare they depart for greener pastures, given all the investment and training you poured into them, as well as the corporate roof you put over their heads, with all its privileges and parks. You’ve laid the foundations for them, providing the transition from college halls to the corridors of commerce and industry. Heartbreak and loss aside, let’s consider the real price you pay for their exit.

The financial consequences of losing women in the middle of their careers are high. Not only must you pay the costs of hiring and on-boarding, but you most likely have to bring in their replacements at a higher payscale. Then there are additional costs for transition time and network building, which upset workflow and productivity. Plus, competitive intelligence is at risk, as is the potential loss of other colleagues as they’re lured away.

For younger women in the organization, it sends a disturbing message for their destinies. And for the upper echelons of management, there’s an apparent vacuum of female talent to draw upon to redress the balance at the most senior level.

Why Women Actually Leave

Based on our years of research, here’s the number one reason why women leave: “My career isn’t going anywhere, so I feel stuck and frustrated,” they consistently tell us. “No one is talking to me about the next step, and I don’t see where I can go from here. I don’t necessarily want my boss’s job, and I can’t see any other options.”

While this may be a slightly naïve view of how careers advance, it’s why women talk to competitors. They say their current companies aren’t instigating open, honest, and constructive conversations with them. Equally, women don’t feel equipped to step into this uncomfortable territory since it isn’t the norm from their view, and the consequences of potentially creating tension with a manager feels too risky.

This type of conversation shouldn’t be confused with annual or mid-year appraisals. Instead, it’s a conversation about career management. In its absence, the lure of opportunity elsewhere—and the appeal of being wanted—can lead to false assumptions and ill-informed decisions, at a cost to all parties.

The second reason women leave their organizations: “I’m not getting promoted, and I’m not getting compensated adequately.” As a result, women feel like they’re being used. While most of the companies we work with monitor the pay gap in aggregate very closely so as to not get it wrong—and in some cases, even slightly overcompensate women—the problem is no one knows that. There isn’t any transparency on the process, statistics, or efforts. The absence of communication leads to misinformation, misperception, and distrust.

Here’s reason number three: “I’m not being challenged.” In any expertise-driven role, there comes a point where mastery can lead to boredom. Keen intellectual minds require stimulation and challenge, where new content and personal achievement can be taxed.

The problem? We don’t regularly stretch our women or test the elasticity of their thinking and capabilities at a crucial point in their careers. And this isn’t to be confused with a promotion or increased responsibility, although they’re not mutually exclusive. As women watch others get new opportunities, they begin to question their value in the organization, compounding the issues outlined and further eroding trust.

The last reason is simple: “I don’t trust my managers.” In our experience, this is due to a misjudgment. If your boss didn’t present you with a career path, promotion, pay bump, or opportunity to learn, would you trust him or her?

The importance of building that trust can’t be overstated, and we often assume it’s there when it isn’t. We pay lip service and train people in the art of collaboration and building partnerships, but in the safe space of coaching conversations, we find there’s so much more work to be done.

Managers and their female talent need better ways of spending informal time, showing vulnerability, and thereby building trust. Just imagine: If you weren’t sure you could trust your manager, how comfortable would you be having a career conversation, accepting feedback, or staying with the company?

3 Ways to Retain Your Female Talent

1. Manage them better. While the age-old solution is often to blame the manager, that isn’t the most helpful approach. We ask bosses to do an enormous number of things with fewer resources and very little time. Gone are the days when managers, especially of mid-career talent, had the luxury of time to just manage. The solution, then, lies with leaders targeting their efforts in better ways. But how?

It starts with giving managers better guidelines on how to spend those precious few minutes with a female subordinate. We need to be explicit about what to say and how to say it. We need to help them frame the narrative and talk honestly with them about trade-offs of committing to the effort. Without such guidance, we won’t see progress. It isn’t hard—it’s just about doing things a little differently and consciously.

If managers spent equal time on informal interactions with men and women, they’d get to know the people as people. Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to find common ground if you’re curious enough and make the effort. The same advice applies to any diverse talent. The better you know the person as a person, the greater the trust and the better you can manage.

And what if managers ensured all voices were heard around the table, regardless of gender? This is a recurring theme of coaching women who struggle to interrupt or convey their points in a group. We don’t have a view on whether or not this is unique to women, but we’re very clear about the consequences for women (or anyone else) who feel their voices aren’t heard. Managers can rectify this by simply noticing who hasn’t spoken, asking for their opinions, and ensuring they’re heard.

Finally, it’s absolutely critical to give consistent feedback. Whether it’s formal or informal, it should be frequent and beyond the confines of annual appraisals. Even if the delivery falls short of perfection, women and organizations will thank you for filling the vacuum and making the effort. Just try not to use standard management buzzwords like “strategic,” “proactive,” “team player,” and “executive presence.” Instead, use your own words to illustrate the issues as you see them.

2. Map their career paths. At a female employee’s mid-career point, the path forward is not necessarily obvious. It’s when breadth of experience starts to be highly relevant. However, the employee needs to talk to someone about what breadth matters most, how to consider getting that breadth, and how to navigate the fears that come with stepping out of her comfort zone. It’s important to provide a forum where the issues are tabled, and to avoid assumptions and misunderstandings, which only fuel the desire to leave.

Asking this trite chestnut doesn’t help: “Where do you want to be in five years?” It’s often hard to know where the organization will be by then, so crafting a compelling answer is a challenge at best and dishonest at worst. Instead, consider a different range of questions:

  • How far would you like to see your career go?
  • Do you want to run a P&L?
  • Do you want to set strategic direction?
  • Do you want to be on a board or a management committee?

These questions allow for a more credible and personal discussion about the collection of experiences the female employee will need to have to advance. Most women are afraid to ask them; they’re scared their managers will punish them for not being loyal to the team. Sadly, In our experience, some bosses do just that. Don’t follow their lead.

3. Prepare them for career obstacles. Every career has a series of obstacles: a setback, a promotion that went to a less qualified candidate, a boss who wasn’t supportive, peers with totally different styles and approaches, a great sponsor who leaves, and so on. There’s a rich context of real-life scenarios, recurring themes, and eventualities, for which we are mostly ill-prepared.

Many of us can manage these obstacles thanks to coworkers with whom we can candidly confide. But if we don’t have that kind of support system and we hit a roadblock, then what happens? The problem becomes personal, and the office turns into a lonely place. The options for managing the obstacle alone are far too narrow, and as a result, it’s easier to leave.

A CEO revealed an illuminating truth to us: “I ask women in my organization who their best friend is at work, and the women all say they don’t have a best friend,” the executive reported. “No wonder they leave. If you don’t have any close friends in the company, given how hard we work, it wouldn’t be any fun to be here.”

Women aren’t building networks of confidants, despite the prevalence of women’s networks. In our experience, a well-designed program that forces women to talk to each other about what’s really going on is about the only thing that does work. When we prize out the issues that matter, table the difficult topics, help create the narrative that supports their collective development, and surprise them with the commonality of challenges they share, good things happen.

For women, the vulnerability of sharing issues in their working lives creates the foundation for a potent network of confidants who are available in times of need. Women must own this process as pivotal to their own success, not simply as “nice to have.” It should be central to their ambition to make change. Businesses should invest in this effort, because it’s a key ingredient in retaining talent.

In addition, it’s helpful to think about what obstacles are likely to occur and how to deal with them in advance. But this isn’t a question of senior women sharing the trials and tribulations of their career paths. Younger women have had enough of their elders telling their war stories and giving the usual advice; they’d rather talk about today. Senior women’s experiences need to apply in the reality of today’s workplace and address today’s social norms. Young women need to reflect on the potential hurdles they haven’t encountered yet, and have time to prepare before those hurdles feel like crises.

Knowing how to address these events when they happen may be the difference between staying and leaving an organization. Female employees need to have a clue how to handle angry bosses, pay concerns, risky opportunities, and other events that could derail them. If they can predict these potential pitfalls before they happen and explore the potential consequences of their actions, they’ll develop strategic approaches to career management for when such events do occur. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.

We’re advocates of empowering young working women to be happier and to be heard, but most of all, to take back control of their careers. With a trusted network of confidants, better management, and a sense of how to tackle the known and unknown, they’ll be better agents of their corporate destinies.

But bucking the trend of losing women in their early 30s rests at the doors of both parties. Acknowledged internally, women and their managers must take the necessary steps to consciously embrace a number of behaviors and actions to make that happen. These conversations will require skill and practice, and could mean the difference between losing top, hard-won talent to the competition and improving your pool of senior female talent for years to come.

Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., the managing partner of Leadership Forum LLC, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership capability. She specializes in helping women (and men) get to the top, stick, and thrive. Her latest emphasis is on helping managers build truly inclusive cultures. She hosts a weekly radio show called Out of the Comfort Zone.

Annie Rodgers, executive coach and partner of Leadership Forum LLC, has more than 25 years of experience leading large teams in global corporations. She helps individuals and teams reach peak performance by transforming awareness, changing behaviors, and sustaining actions that underpin their purpose.