Some of the world's most powerful women are calling it quits.
Last week, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, also one of Google's earliest employees, announced she's leaving the company to "start a new chapter focused on my family, health, and personal projects I'm passionate about," she wrote in a note to employees.
The announcement came days after Meta confirmed chief business officer Marne Levine is stepping down after 13 years with the company in order to "recharge and prioritize some quality time with family" before beginning her "next professional chapter." She's the third female C-suite leader to leave Meta in recent years, following chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's exit in 2022 and global ad chief Carolyn Everson's in 2021.
And in global politics, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned this month after more than eight years in the role, saying no one should stay in a political role for too long, while New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in January she had "no more in the tank" to lead the country, and that she'd step down and not seek re-election.
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These are just a few high-profile examples of a trend that shows women leaders are leaving their organizations at the highest rate ever, widening the quitting gap between women and men in senior roles, according to recent data from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company.
To give some context, for every woman stepping into a director-level leadership role, two are choosing to leave, says Alexis Krivkovich, McKinsey senior partner and an author of the joint Lean In and McKinsey "Women in the Workplace" report.
The pattern has the potential to unwind decades of progress toward gender equity and increased female leadership in the workplace, she tells CNBC Make It. "It's a huge concern and worth focusing on."
Even after they've climbed the career ladder, women in senior leadership face more headwinds than men do, Krivkovich says, ranging from everyday microaggressions (like being questioned on their expertise) to carrying a greater responsibility in diversity and inclusion initiatives.
"They are doing more in their roles than men are typically doing across a whole gamut of things that support their office culture and community," Krivkovich adds. "They do twice as much sponsorship support, spend more time on diversity work, and spend more time mentoring and sponsoring" colleagues within the organization.
So it stands to reason that, after years or decades at the top, they're going to lose steam: 43% of women leaders reported feeling burned out, compared to 31% of men, according to Lean In and McKinsey data.
In some ways, women can send a powerful message when they acknowledge they're stepping back to prioritize themselves, says Valerie Workman, chief legal officer at Handshake, a job-search platform for college students and recent grads.
Referring to Wojcicki's decision to step down at Google, Workman says, "If you were the head of YouTube, how is it a fail that you decide to go and do something else when you've made it as far as you can possibly go?"
"They're meeting their goals and being successful, and some are choosing to leave before they get burned out," Workman adds. "It's a phenomenal example for young women. That's a success story."
It's also possible that women, especially ones of power and influence, could leave to start a new organization that's more inclusive and supportive of women in the workplace, Krivkovich says. Women increasingly want to work for companies that prioritize career advancement, flexibility, employee well-being and more, and are quitting when their needs aren't being met, according to Lean In and McKinsey's report.
Still, the departure of a female senior leader can have negative consequences on the junior employees who remain, Krivkovich says: the C-suite loses another diverse perspective; work around diversity, inclusion, mentorship and sponsorship can stall; and young women lose out on seeing a senior-level female role model within their organization.
The problem remains that there are too few women in high levels of leadership, Krivkovich says: "Lots of men leave their positions, but we analyze and scrutinize when women leaders do in a different way. If we had a lot more women prime ministers and CEOs and leaders at the very top, when we had one retire or exit, it wouldn't feel like such a loss."
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