Company leaders, especially in high-paced industries, may have all sorts of assumptions about the reasons as to why women don’t progress to leadership roles.
Diversity efforts often focus on recruiting and sometimes on promotions within companies, but there’s an important part of the pipeline that is often overlooked – the voluntary turnover. Leaders often assume that women just choose to lean out in order to take care of family responsibilities. In reality, the reasons to leave can vary greatly. With a cost of 1.5x -3x of annual salary to replace a valuable employee, it's pretty surprising how many companies fail to manage the retention rate of female talent.
I would like to share with you several case studies of companies who chose to dive into the data before taking action.
Procter & Gamble Reverses Mentoring
In 1992 only 5% of vice presidents and general managers at Procter & Gamble were women. A special task force identified that 2/3 of the employees who were leaving the company were women. Despite what you and I may think, these women were not leaving to have children. 96% of the women were leaving for other high-stress, higher time commitment, jobs. P&G came up with a creative solution – Mentor Up Program - through which female employees became mentors to senior managers. This reverse mentorship brought to light the fact that women felt undervalued in the company; they were passed over for promotions and looked down at for being moms. Despite initial skepticism, in the first five years of the program, the number of women in senior leadership roles grow sixfold. Today, about 43% of all managers and 30% of executives are women. 5 of the 12 board members are women. 
Deutsche Bank Assigns Senior Sponsors to High Potential Women
In 2009, Deutsche Bank's (“DB”) Global Head of Diversity discovered that female managing directors were not leaving because of work/life balance issues but because they were getting bigger jobs externally after not being considered for internal promotions. DB created an internal sponsorship program called ATLAS (Accomplished Top Leaders Advancement Strategy) that paired women leaders with sponsors from the executive committee. DB also launched the Woman Global Leaders program in partnership with INSEAD because they realized that a robust leadership pipeline required focusing on women at the upper-middle-management level across the entire global organization. Since 2009 (when ATLAS was launched), the number of women managing directors at DB grew by 50%, a large proportion of whom are alumnae of the program. Attrition rate for participants is 50% lower than that of the average executive. 
Deloitte Creates a Culture of Talent Management
In 1993, Deloitte & Touche’s CEO, Mike Cook, commissioned a study to find out why women were not reaching senior partner positions and were having higher attrition rates despite the fact that Deloitte has been hiring equal number of men and women in the preceding 10 years. The outcome: less than 10% of women leaving Deloitte were opting out to take care of small children, the rest were finding jobs elsewhere. Deloitte then launched the Women Initiative (“WIN”) as an umbrella to various programs aimed at supporting women’s careers at the firm. The percentage of female partners grew from 6% in 1993 to about a 25% in 2015 and the firm recently was the first among the Big Four to nominate a female CEO – Cathy Engelbert.
Research Tells Us That Similar Biases Hold True Today
Despite all these lessons learned, more than twenty years after the P&G and Deloitte studies, many highly successful professionals still seem to subscribe to the same set of assumptions. According to a long term study of Harvard graduates “despite the fact that men and women actually have pretty similar career priorities, the belief that women value career less is widespread. We found that 77% of HBS graduates overall—73% of men and 85% of women—believe that “prioritizing family over work” is the number one barrier to women’s career advancement [..] One alumna in her mid-thirties noted, a key factor is still “deep-rooted attitudes that a woman should be the primary caregiver, so it is ‘understood’ that her career may have to take a backseat for a while as similar male colleagues move ahead at a more rapid pace.”
In the same group of respondents, the reality proved to be very similar to Deloitte’s findings: only 11% of the women left the workforce and of those who left many cited dissatisfaction with career progress with being moved to more operational roles or excluded from new opportunities once they became mothers. When the researchers looked at the women who stayed in the workforce, even when considered all sorts of concessions women could have made like asking for flexible time, traveling less, career breaks, and others none of these factors explained the gender gap in senior management. "In fact, both men and women in top management teams were typically more likely than those lower down in the hierarchy to have made career decisions to accommodate family responsibilities." 
Don't rely on your assumptions or "gut feeling" when it comes to women and the barriers that hold them back from reaching leadership positions. Go after the data. Exit interviews may tell you an important story about what your company can be doing better to retain its talented female employees and what your competitors are already doing to steal them away.
 Rottenberg, Linda. Crazy Is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags. Portfolio, 2014. Print.
 Ibarra, Hermina, Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva. 2010. Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women. Harvard Business Review, Sep. 2010.
 Ely, Robin J., Pamela Stone and Coleen Ammerman. 2014. Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women. Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2014.
In her free time, Miriam also runs the Leadership and Women Community on Facebook, to share stories of inspirational women leaders and practical career advice for high-potential women.
Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace and lives of women.