Where Have All the Women Leaders Gone?


Open Letter to Corporate Leadership:

I want to dispel a myth that still circulates in our economy when people try to explain why the percentage of women on the management track plummets from 53% of the entry-level workforce to 20% or less in leadership. The myth goes something like this: “Women get to childbearing age about the time they’d be ready for promotion, and a lot of them leave to start families.”

Wrong. The truth is that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58% of women in the U.S. are working in the civilian workforce (only 6% fewer than working men.) Importantly the percentage of working mothers is 65%, which is 2% above the number of working men.

It should come as no surprise that women stay in the workforce in their most vital years, because ever since we’ve started keeping statistics on it (about 10 years) women are proving themselves to be able and effective workers and leaders, very capable of earning their living and helping businesses thrive.

So if working moms aren’t leaving the workforce to have kids and aren’t climbing the corporate ladder, where are they going?

Based on research and overwhelming anecdotal evidence. Here is the unvarnished truth about what the women in your company are thinking.

Many women know they could be good leaders, but instead they consciously choose not to leverage their full talent on your behalf.

McKinsey found that women are 50% less likely than men to aspire to the C-Suite even if “anything were possible.” While many interpret this to mean women aren’t ambitious, when you talk to the women you’ll find that they are either frustrated, resigned or – as is frequently the case – simply want to do good work instead of “waste their time” playing corporate political one-upsmanship. When this is the case, companies are spending their leadership development energy on the people who want to play corporate political games as much or more than doing good work, and they often end up promoting less competent men to the top. It should really make you take a hard look at your corporate culture and ask yourself if you’re running a true meritocracy, or a club that only some people can (and care to) get into.

Where do the best and brightest go? Many of the best, most confident and talented women would rather be their own boss, and live the life they want, than work for you.

Some women bonk their head on the glass ceiling, but most who leave simply aren’t interested in busting through it. Rather than decide to stay in the lower ranks and “do good work,” they leave to pursue self-employment where they find greater satisfaction and more flexibility. The ranks of women-owned companies are growing at one-and-a-half times the rate of those started by men. But while female and male entrepreneurs are demographically similar, their businesses aren’t; women run smaller, less well financed businesses that give them greater personal flexibility and quality of life. While women are clearly capable of growing entrepreneurial enterprises (growing $10 million+ firms  47% more than all firms of that size over the last decade), my anecdotal conversations with many women business owners demonstrate that to grow or not is a function of personal choice than ability or desire to “prove themselves.”

What these data tell us is women are opting for a different way of making a living than pursuing the vision of the ladder-climbing corporate exec. They’re valuing quality of life, family and career satisfaction more highly than the trappings of executive success. They’re content to work in order to have enough money to live, not “get rich.”

Entrepreneurial women in particular are establishing a new definition of success, as a person who can pay her bills, be fulfilled and happy, do good work, be present to her life and the people in it who are important to her. She can do this on her own, live “off the corporate grid,” survive and thrive. While there are still many institutional disincentives to this lifestyle (i.e., expensive health care, lack of maternity leave etc.), more and more women are pursuing it anyway.

Think you can live without their talent? Think they’ll come around when the economy picks up? Think again. Women opting off the ladder and into entrepreneurship are just the beginning. Sharing the same values and desire for this new kind of success are the millennials (and not a few Gen Yers, too) who represent your future workforce.

Women are the canary in your coal mine, corporate America. Now what will you do?

Read the second open letter from Dana on Thursday.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Executive Coach, women's leadership advocate & founder of InPowerCoaching.com, Dana cracks the code on personal power to help women and men forge their leadership identity & mindset. Follow her at www.InPowerWomen.com, www.InPowerCoaching.com, www.Danatheus.com, and @DanaTheus on Twitter

  • JLRogers

    Dana – love the canary in the coalmine analogy and hadn’t thought of it like this previously. I think you are on target and you certainly capture the reasons that I started by own company. looking forward to reading more.

  • ingew2o

    It’s what I see, and what statistics confirm. Did you know that 37% of highly qualified women leave the workforce after having children, and 95% of those do not consider returning to their previous employers? However, most of them are back at work (somewhere else) within 6 months.

  • Jerry Steele

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Thank you for this. I bowed out of a big title, big salary, carte blanche (“do anything you want here”) tract because the games were juvenile, the bogged down politics stifled innovation, and no one had the guts to do what really needed to be done to succeed. I consult on my own now, choose whom I want to work with, where, and when…and I love it.

  • Lisa Shelley

    Well said Dana!

  • Krista Looza

    So many of us agree…but how do we change it? Can there be a more balanced and highly successful corporate America because talented women are leading it? That is the kind of difference I want to make. It will never happen if we as women continue to bow out and let the ‘less competent men’ continue to dictate how our careers will go. Play the game and then change the rules!

  • Susan Mazza

    This is a brilliant and insightful exploration Dana. Women are indeed as you put it “the canary in the coal mine” – a big aha moment for me. Thanks for that insight! For as long as there are “golden handcuffs” for the upper echelons in organizations there will be ardent protectors of the status quo. Perhaps the ultimate tipping point will not come from within existing organizations, but from the pressure of competition created by those who invent new ways of doing business that are both more successful as well as more satisfying places to work.

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  • Lillian Gregory

    Is it a DISTURBING TREND or an evolutionary shift in the world of work? What Leader wants to wait for validation amzn.to/16JyoPs ? I love this topic and can’t wait to read your next Open Letter. The “corporate climb” can feel like a trap if all else isn’t handled well – faith, family, friends, finances, focus. The world of work has changed but corporate has been slow to do the same. What are we (women) waiting for? The barriers to C-Suite have been removed if we’re is willing to step out and step up by building the lives that we want rather than living the lives that have been predefined for us http://bit.ly/1aybCOE.

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  • Jess Robson

    Dana – thank you for sharing in such a clear and accessible way. And it’s so true – entrepreneurship is one of the most life-satisfying experiences, regardless of income (or lack there of, at times!). Totally nailed it – and love your candor :).

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