Resignation Rates of Women: It’s Not the Pandemic

Visier’s recent research looking at 2021 resignation rates in more than 50 U.S. organizations confirmed a worrying trend: since September 2020, more women than men resigned from their jobs, and their resignation rates grew faster by 17% until August this year.

Figure: Resignation rate percentage increase 2020-2021 by gender. Women and men have both been resigning, but women’s resignation rates have increased more.

A search for the reasons behind this trend led to a plethora of research by others and allowed a dire picture to emerge: Some of the women who left their employers in the past year aren’t planning on going back to work in the near future. From those who remain in the workforce, many manage full-time employment in addition to caregiving responsibilities and households. Others are also stepping up to support and manage employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts—more than men at similar levels—and are probably fully aware that this type of work is unlikely to get recognized by their organization. We also know that feelings of burnout will likely be suffered in silence as women are less likely than men to discuss burnout with their managers for fear of being perceived as incapable of doing their jobs.

As the attraction and retention of top talent has been a particularly hot topic over the summer, one has to wonder: What is driving this turnover and burnout among women?

Inequity for women was a problem long before COVID-19

A lot of the above listed challenges for women are clearly linked to the impact of the pandemic, but COVID-19 and its impact on the gender gap can only serve as an excuse for so long. Women have experienced systemic inequality in the workplace for decades, long before the pandemic hit.

Despite promises and pledges made by organizations to make diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts “permanent,” plain and simple gender bias is as prevalent as ever. Our own data painfully lays bare that glass ceilings for women striving for leadership roles exist, although there is some promise for women managers at lower levels. Nevertheless, at current rates, the wage gap will take another decade to close.

So, rather than blaming the impact of the pandemic on women, organizations that have suddenly begun to worry about growing resignation rates in women should probably do some soul searching about what they have actually done to enable women’s equality in their ranks prior to COVID-19.

Rather than blame the pandemic for resignations by women, organizations should think hard about how they actually enabled women’s progress before.

The uphill battle to leadership roles for women prior to the pandemic

Despite the well-known finding that gender diversity in executive teams is predictive of higher profitability and superior value creation, and that women are repeatedly rated as more effective leaders before and during a crisis, women are battling glass ceilings on their way to senior leadership roles, every single day. One way this manifests is in what we call the “manager divide”: we found in a separate research study that the manager ratio that often works in favor of men increases with employee age, and peaks at age 45-50 years, for example, when 190 (19%) of 1000 women will be managers, but 250 (25%) of 1000 men will be managers.

Add the findings from a new study focused on promotions showing that women are consistently underestimated in their leadership ability, and hence, 14% less likely to be promoted by their current employer, and ask yourself: are we really still surprised about the rising resignation rates among women if getting ahead into leadership roles is an endless uphill battle?

Planning beyond the pandemic—what can organizations do?

Organizations that are serious about planning their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy beyond the pandemic can expect to be more effective if they support it with data—and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Comparing the organization’s data with benchmarks in the industry may reveal inequities and identify root causes. Different patterns within certain demographics, such as a sharp reduction in the number of women employees within a certain age range, can help zoom in on problems for certain populations.

For example, one organization found that overall women performed as well as men and stayed longer. However, a review of their talent acquisition process uncovered disproportionately lower numbers of female applicants available and that women were more likely to be dropped during the interview process. In this case, focusing on talent acquisition in the external market and having more diverse interviewer will yield the strongest results.

This chart highlights a talent pipeline funnel and indicates that the amount of women applicants is disproportionately lower than male applicants and, further, that as women move through the hiring process, more women are dropped during the interview process.

Further, if a disproportionate number of men versus women managers is affecting an organization, it will help to find out how long women wait for promotions in comparison to men, and what the wait period is like across diverse groups.

Answers to questions such as the below can help focus a data-based DEI strategy:

  • Are women receiving the same amount of development and career pathing?
  • Are bias mitigation strategies built into the performance review process?
  • Are employees of different genders and ethnicities equally represented in succession planning?
  • Are certain employee populations resigning disproportionately more than others?
  • Are resignations due to pay inequities?

Is pay equitable? This comparison highlights an underrepresented category that is paid considerably less than the majority group at the executive level. Such highlights can identify where an organization needs to focus its pay equity corrections.

In short, organizations need to not only increase measurement efforts but also emphasize equity in the rollout and implementation of HR policies. Do men feel comfortable taking parental leave without stigma? Are women paid the same as men in equal roles? Data and effective policies will answer and address these questions. Paying attention to people data will reveal the causes of gender inequities, and keeping track of this data will let leaders know how their mitigation strategies are working. Any company’s unique situation will determine which strategies to focus on, but without data and benchmarks, it’s just guesswork.

We know the pandemic, burnout, and inequalities have been affecting resignation rates for women. It’s time to stop talking about it and time to start doing something about it. We can’t change the pandemic, but we can take a good hard look at the data and see where there’s room to take actions to address inequities and to make meaningful policy changes today.

Andrea Derler, Ph.D

Andrea Derler, Ph.D., principal, research and customer value at Visier. She is an organizational researcher and previously a human capital analyst. She has a background in management research, human science, and human capital consulting. At Visier, she leads research efforts and helps produce data-based, practice-oriented, and actionable insights for business and HR leaders. She can be reached at andrea.derler@visier.com.

Lexy Martin

Lexy Martin, principal, research and customer value at Visier and chairperson, People Intelligence Alliance. She is one of the best researchers on HR technology adoption and its value to organizations. Well known as the originator of the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey, Lexy now works at Visier researching the value of people analytics and supporting organizations in their transformation to become data-driven organizations. She is a past managing editor of IHRIM’s Workforce Solution Review. She can be reached at lexy.martin@visier.com.

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