It seems like every week I read a new report on women leaving the workforce and every week I have conversations with women friends who are contemplating quitting their jobs due to burnout. 

Trying to juggle spreadsheets, deadlines, child care and endless to-do lists at home has left women exhausted and fed up. As a female leader, I can relate. I feel great empathy for each woman’s experience and decision and simultaneously feel great concern about what women struggling or leaving the workforce means to the companies we lead, our economy and the status of women overall. 

Why is work not working for women? The pandemic has compounded the overload many women have felt for years. We’ve been trying to do it all, and recent shifts have increased workloads at home and at work, leaving women at a breaking point.

A just-released “Women in the Workplace” report from Lean In and McKinsey & Co. found that 1 in 3 women have considered changing or leaving their jobs in the past year, up from 1 in 4 women the prior year. And while both men and women are reporting burnout, the gap between men and women who feel overwhelmed has nearly doubled, and more women are considering taking different jobs or leaving the workforce altogether. 

What can we as leaders do to support women? We can adapt our workforce to meet the needs of women, says research from Deloitte Global. That resort indicates  employers who give women a culture and support to enable them to succeed “have a more productive and motivated workforce and are likely to report greater retention.” 

Culture makes all the difference. The concept of creating a new way of working was emphasized in a recent Boston Business Journal article by my business school classmate Andrea Silbert and co-author Lynn Wooten called “Why work isn’t working for women.” They maintain that if employers want to stay competitive they must build workplace cultures that are equitable and inclusive, and “throw out the old top-down, traditional models to attract diversity.” 

I asked local leaders: “What do companies need to do to stay competitive in retaining and advancing women in the workforce?”

Kate Banasiak, CEO/owner, Diversified Management Services 
Stop thinking it’s a one-size-fits-all table. Instead, get brave and build a table that allows people to pull up a multitude of chairs that create an open environment for evolution. The right chair allows employees to shine without burning out. 

Beth Coonan, shareholder, Dentons Davis Brown 
Leaders should embrace flexibility. Providing flexibility doesn’t mean sacrificing accountability, but it does mean dialing back the micromanagement, meeting women where they are and recognizing their unique talents. If you don’t trust a particular employee enough to give them flexibility, that employee probably doesn’t belong on your team.

Lonnie Dafney, AVP and director of diversity, equity and inclusion, EMC Insurance Cos. 
Leaders will need to be much more grounded in what the word “equity” means, along with greater flexibility in their approach, leadership and the cultural norms they are perpetuating. Leaders must understand that the traditional work environment and roles are a thing of the past and must evolve to a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. 

Sanjita Pradhan, director of diversity and inclusion, Greater Des Moines Partnership 
This may sound like a simple answer, but there is plenty of research showing that empathy and empathetic leadership are crucial to retaining talent, fostering inclusion, fostering psychological safety and preventing burnout. If we combine empathy and care, we will be able to better understand the issues our female colleagues/workers are dealing with and provide them with the needed support to contribute their time and talent to our workforce.

Emily Schmitt, chief administrative officer and general counsel, Sukup Manufacturing Co. 
Today, it’s not just about trendy recruiting, but intentional recruiting. You must be competent in retaining women and other target recruited groups before you can intentionally market for that pool. Consider flexible schedules, no meetings before 9 or after 3, great benefits and emotionally intelligent managers who understand the circumstances and environments we are operating in.

Eugenia Kutsch-Stanton, U.S. crop protection regulatory leader, Corteva Agriscience 
Listen, connect and empower women. Examine your culture. Practice equity and humility. Have difficult dialogue and empowering conversations. Measure the impact of your values. Culture is what you do, not what you say.


Supporting women on their own terms is key now and in the future. Equitable cultures, inclusive policies, flexible schedules and opportunities for advancement will make the difference between women leaving or staying in the workforce. Prioritizing women’s well-being is good for business, good for women and good for all of us.

Best practices for leaders who want to support women in the workforce:

  • Respect womens’ unique talents and needs. “Recognize and acknowledge the unique contributions and roles that women play,” says Kutch-Stanton. “Our flexibility and agility is at once transformational and disruptive.”
  • Be curious. Banasiak urges employers to be intentional and creative, saying, “When we drill down further into the why of what we are trying to solve, we might find answers that we never would have imagined.” At her company, Banasiak has created an entirely new system to replace the 8-5 concept; it allows employees to work at their peak points in the day and still service clients.
  • Be creative. Sukup Manufacturing looks for ways to make jobs more accessible for women. “If you’re a manufacturer, review workstation requirements frequently,” Schmitt says. “We use Cost Reduction Technologies from Iowa to reduce strenuous jobs to widen the base for women’s entry.”
  • Combine empathy and care. Pradhan says, “In addition to empathy, leaders should really ‘care’ about their employees.” Leaders who truly care take each woman’s needs seriously and help craft a path that meets the needs of employee and employer. Says Banasiak, “I want each employee to feel aligned with what mutual success looks like.” 
  • Listen and act. Dafney says, “Don’t assume! Ask and be prepared for the response.” Coonan encourages leaders to foster a culture where women can openly express their opinions, an atmosphere “free from ego and threat of reprisal.” She asserts, “Organizations reach their full potential when all voices are heard.”