Work Career

Do a Motherhood Retention Audit

Like men, women leave jobs all of the time. They get better jobs. They move. They stop working to travel the world, to care for ailing family members, and to care for themselves. But the truth is that women are most likely to completely leave the workforce to care for children.

For example, in the tech industry, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 56 percent of women in STEM leave their jobs mid-career.298 This is double the turnover rate of men. Of the women who leave, 24 percent take a non-technical job in a different company, 10 percent go to a start-up, and the remaining 42 percent either freelance or stop working altogether. Why? We don’t have actual data, but it’s safe to assume these women are leaving to care for children. And the same mass exodus happens in advertising, financial services, law, and business. It’s one of the key reasons we don’t have enough women at the top. With fewer women to choose from, it’s harder to find women to promote into senior leadership.

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Historically, most companies haven’t actually tracked where women go, much less why they leave. Exit interviews don’t typically ask detailed questions about work-life integration. This lack of information means we can imbue a woman’s exit with our own biases. If she says she is leaving to focus on her children, we assume she “opted out” rather than recognize circumstances likely forced her out. Because we see this as her “choice,” we don’t realize she might not have left if she had the right support, such as flexible work options or an environment that recognized that leaving at 5 PM didn’t mean you weren’t committed to your career.

If a meaningful exit interview had been done when I left my advertising agency, I would have explained I was leaving because I knew I couldn’t be successful as a mom in that environment. I would have explained how the punishing hours meant I couldn’t be home to put my child to bed. I would have explained how uncomfortable it was trying to pump in the bathroom I would have explained that I had one too many male executives ask me why I wasn’t at home with my child rather than working late into the night, implying as they did that I wasn’t a good mother.

This data might have enabled my company to put into place a retention plan so the next time a new mom was considering leaving the agency, they would have the tools and information to figure out a way to keep her. But our biases about “opting out” means we don’t challenge our thinking about why moms leave. Data changes that.

There are a number of talent software systems like PeopleInsight and Talent Chaser that allow employers to track when a woman takes maternity leave, the length of that leave, and when she leaves the company. However, most of these software systems don’t drill down to understand why she leaves. It requires a forward-thinking human resources leader to ask that question and connect the dots. Conducting a motherhood retention audit is the only way to truly unpack the motivations behind why a mother leaves a job and figure out what could have been done to keep her.

Motherhood retention audits aren’t just exit interviews. They are detailed questionnaires with inputs that uncover the true motivations behind leaving. They offer the talent manager the chance to track these trends to identify if, in fact, the company has a motherhood retention issue. This data can offer critical insight into why we have a “leaky” pipeline.

Ask any woman who has paused her career, as I did with the Women on the Rise survey, and she can tell you the exact moment she knew she would leave her job—that “tipping point” moment when she looked at the balance of her life (caring for beloveds on one side and a rewarding career on the other) and decided the scales were completely askew and something had to give. If we truly want to keep women engaged in the workforce, then let’s understand their tipping point moments. If motherhood retention audits were standard, it wouldn’t take long for companies to figure out why and when women hit that tipping point moment at their company. Intervening before that moment comes can keep a talented employee from abandoning ship. Do this enough times and there will be plenty of women to fill that pipeline to the top.

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