Women in leadership are leaving: Here’s what employers can do to retain them

How to retain women in leadership

New reports indicate that women leaders are exiting the workforce or changing roles at a higher rate than their male counterparts. And while across industries the percentage of women in leadership roles is slowly ticking up, still only a quarter of C-suite executives are women. The truth is that employers can’t afford to lose this talent.

Let’s consider why gender diversity matters so much, what’s causing the outflux of women leaders, and how employers can retain and attract talent.

The background

Women disproportionately carry the mental load of parenting and caregiving — wearing more hats at home, and in many cases swimming upstream at organizations that are not designed for working parents. The precarity of this work/life “balancing act” has been obvious for a while, but the pandemic shone a harsh light on just how unsustainable the situation has become.

I worked from home while pregnant with two kids under four throughout the pandemic. I was living in constant fear of their emotional wellbeing, my elderly parents’ physical safety, and my pregnancy health. And now nearly three years later, I see the impact it continues to have on family wellbeing. The masks are off, but parents like me haven’t come up for air. Childcare and teacher shortages persist, our infrastructure has changed, and racial and gender divides are widening.

The role of the pandemic

When the pandemic hit, overnight families became responsible for more than many could reasonably handle — navigating school and daycare closures, teaching from their kitchen tables, caring for their elderly parents. We were scared for our children’s safety. And we burnt out fast. Many working mothers were forced to leave their jobs.

Since March of 2020, the U.S. workforce has lost more than 5.4 million women,1 putting the country at a 33-year low for women’s labor force participation2

While some of the acute pains of the pandemic have waned, it has reframed priorities for many of us. Working women and moms have been taking notes and they’re clear on what they want (more on this soon).

Why retaining working parents matters for employers

A diverse workforce is a more productive, innovative, successful one. In fact, organizations that rank in the top quarter for gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform their competitors. Add in racial diversity and the number jumps to 25%. Once in leadership positions, women serve as mentors and motivators to younger generations — inspiring those early in their careers to envision themselves in leadership roles. Retaining diverse women in leadership roles isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

6 things employers can do to retain women in leadership

There are many actions organizations can take to retain and attract top talent. Based on recent studies and our own research, we recommend the following tactics as a good starting place.

1.  Broaden your organization’s understanding of the postpartum period and return to work 

Only 65% of moms end up returning to work postpartum. Some reports indicate that only 80% of those who do go back are still there one year after their child’s birth.  

Returning from parental leave is challenging. New parents struggle with a number of issues that can affect their work: PMADs (like postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety), sleep deprivation, breastfeeding challenges, and the list goes on. They’re still figuring out how to care for themselves and navigate new personal responsibilities when they return to work and they need support.

This is why Ovia’s return to work program provides new and expecting parents with unlimited, on-demand access to a dedicated Ovia Care Team that includes parenting coaches, licensed lactation consultants, baby sleep experts, Certified Nurse Midwives, and pediatric specialists to help them navigate every new stage.

If working parents continue to feel forced to choose between their children, their mental health, and their careers, organizations will continue to see a loss of productivity and a rise in attrition.

2.  Invest in family benefits 

In Ovia’s latest Future of Family Friendly Benefits 2023 Report, we surveyed 1,500 working parents and childbearing aged employees. They provided their thoughts on their existing benefits, and what could be improved.

Almost all the respondents we surveyed (96%), say family friendly benefits are important to them, but 55% don’t consider their employer family friendly. And respondents are ready to make moves — 80% would gladly leave their current role for a lateral move to a company with better benefits. If retention is important to a company, providing a strong parental benefits package is crucial.

When asked to rank benefits in order of importance, working parents made it clear they want more support for leave, caregiving, and work flexibility. Here’s their list:

  1. More and longer paid parental leave 
  2. Flexible scheduling, remote, or gradual return to work options
  3. Childcare and caregiver support 
  4. Family-friendly culture 
  5. Easy-to-understand benefits 
  6. Fertility and maternity care management tools 
  7. Mental health support for PMADs
  8. Pumping-friendly work environment
  9. Lactation room quality and bookability 
  10. Alternative family planning support (adoption, surrogacy, etc.)

3. Embed equity into benefits packages

No two paths to parenthood are the same, and benefits packages need to consider various family building avenues, from adoption and surrogacy to Assisted Reproductive Technologies. 1 in 8 couples experience fertility challenges and 63% of LGBTQ+ individuals are expanding their families, yet access to diverse family building options are limited, costly, and emotionally taxing. More and more employers are recognizing the urgency to invest in family building resources.

Benefits packages should also consider health disparities and social determinants of health. For example, we know that when Black women have access to doulas and midwives, they have better outcomes and so do their babies. 

Employers need to expand their offerings to include resources like digital health and doula support to help employees break down barriers to equitable care and self advocacy. Ovia’s birth equity programming, for example, gives Black mothers and birthing people access to a diverse care team, personalized educational content, and uplifting stories of the Black birth experience.

4. Nurture a culture of belonging 

Women who are early in their careers look to senior leaders for mentorship and to set the standard for work/life balance. 

As Ovia’s Co-Founder, I’m extremely aware of the norms I set as a working parent — and so I celebrate when my kids barge in the room during Zoom calls (rather than excusing their presence) and I mark my calendar when I’m taking time for my children.

Family friendly policies help more people feel comfortable taking these kinds of small actions. And when more of us feel comfortable bringing our full selves to work, that’s when company culture begins to shift.

5. Normalize partner support for parenthood 

There isn’t always recognition of the ways all parents’ identities shift when they become parents. When non-birthing parents and partners return from work after having a baby, they deserve paid leave, support, and flexibility too. 

Research shows that inadequate parental leave increases the risk of PMADs in women, but new studies are coming to the same conclusion for men. And we already know that 1 in 4 fathers experience some sort of postpartum depression.

When one partner doesn’t get adequate support, the burden often trickles down to the other to carry the domestic and mental load. Employers have an important role to play here. They should celebrate partners and fathers for taking time off for their sick children, offer parental leave, and encourage all parents to utilize their family benefits.

6. Activate managers to make mental health a team priority 

Maternal mental health is the number one complication of pregnancy, and yet less than 10% of cases get treated due to stigma, gaps in care, or limited mental health training. And if people are afraid to tell their own healthcare providers and partners how they feel, imagine the barriers to these types of conversations at work. 

We need to train managers to make mental health a company-wide concern rather than an individual’s problem. This is why Ovia Health provides dedicated, specialized training for managers to support people on their paths through parenthood — from managing the announcement of pregnancy, to supporting those undergoing fertility treatments, to bringing a child home through adoption. 

What does this mean for the future: Building better family benefits in 2023

I’m seeing the trend of organizations offering inclusive benefits that reflect their employees’ values. It’s because of this push to provide better, more intersectional benefits packages that Ovia is serving 2,000 employers and health plans today. 

More and more organizations are recognizing that to retain women leaders, they need to see employee wellbeing as family wellbeing. There is no greater impact on the health and happiness of an employee than access to the resources to care for what matters most, their family.

1: National Women’s Law Center: https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/December-Jobs-Day.pdf
2: CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/08/womens-labor-force-participation-rate-hit-33-year-low-in-january-2021.html