Three surprises about millennial women (and why this is good news for organisational leaders)


By Christie Hunter Arscott, contributing author to Generation Shift: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining the Millennial Lawyer

With millennials projected to account for 75% of the workforce by 2025 and women accounting for upwards of 50% of this total, one of your company’s greatest talent challenges is likely to be: ‘How do we crack the code of attracting, advancing, and retaining next generation women leaders?’

Our recent study harnesses the input of enterprise leaders and millennials across the globe to help organisations create data-driven people strategies rooted in the needs and desires of the talent segments they are designed to target. 

Here are a few findings that you may find surprising...

1. Motherhood is not the main reason that women around age 30 leave their organisations
When considering the main reasons why women around age 30 leave organisations, you may expect the primary influences to be motherhood or difficulty integrating work and life. For example, in our survey, when we asked organisational leaders about the most difficult transitions women 5-10 years out of university face, these executives ranked transition to motherhood first.

In contrast, millennial women ranked transition from university to first job and changing roles for the first time as more difficult, with the transition to motherhood third. A similar disconnect was found in the answers to the question ‘Why do women 5-10 years out of university leave organisations?’. While organisational leaders ranked the need for flexibility and starting a family as the primary reason, millennial women identified a higher paying job and lack of learning and development as their primary departure drivers.

So what does all this mean? Without undermining the pressures having a family places on a working professionals, the bottom line is that motherhood is not the complete story on why women around the age of 30 are leaving organisations.

In fact, attributing attrition to motherhood will likely undermine retention efforts as it detracts from the other root causes of departure. Attributing departures to external factors (such as having a family) absolves organisations from any responsibility (e.g. “She would have left anyway”) and also, encourages retention strategies to be focused on mothers – which findings highlight is too late in many women’s careers and is not inclusive of all women. The difficult transitions and departure drivers that were identified by millennial women highlight the need for leaders to focus on supporting women through earlier career transitions. 

The good news for organisational leaders: Unlike external factors (such as having a family), many of the departure drivers for women are ones that organisational leaders can influence and change through people policies, processes and programs.

2. Men and women around the age of 30 leave organisations for similar reasons. This defies the myth that men around age 30 primarily leave companies due to pay and women around age 30 leave companies due to family reasons.

Similar to the discrepancy between views on motherhood, there is a conflict in reports on the differences between millennial men and millennial women. While leaders believe that men and women leave organisations for different reasons, the reality is that departure drivers are closely aligned. Data reveals an inherent gender bias influencing perceptions of women’s departures: leaders believe that women leave because their work and personal life are out of balance or they are starting a family, while men leave for a higher paying job or because there is not a fair balance between their work effort and pay. Men are perceived as compensation driven, while women are perceived as focused on balance and family.

The reality is in stark contrast to the perception of leaders. According to millennials, four out of the five top reasons why women and men leave organisations overlap include:

  • "I have found a job that pays more elsewhere"
  • "There are not enough opportunities for learning and development for me here"
  • There is not a fair balance between how hard I work and the compensation I receive"
  • "The work here is not as interesting and meaningful as I would like"

The good news for organisational leaders: Retention and advancement strategies that are informed by the needs and desires of millennial women are likely to address the preferences of millennial men as well. Women’s strategies can enhance overall talent strategies.

3. Women in both their 20s and 30s value similar things at work. This breaks the myth that millennials will become increasingly like the rest of us as they ‘grow up’ and ‘mature.’

Recognising that there is considerable alignment between departure drivers for millennial women and men, the question of difference between age brackets arises. Do women age 22-29 leave organisations for different reasons than women 30-35?

Our findings counter the popular perception that millennials’ desires will change over time. Four of the five top reasons for leaving were identical across age groups: higher paying jobs elsewhere, lack of opportunities for learning and development, lack of interesting and meaningful work, and wanting more time with family.

The good news for organisational leaders: The perceived difference between age brackets is overstated. There is less of a need to segment (and complicate) strategies by age group. Instead, there is the opportunity to create broad impact through strategies that address the needs of the majority of millennial women in your workforce.

Based on these findings, there are a few key actions leaders can take:

  • Address challenges beyond motherhood: Motherhood is not the primary or only reason women are leaving organisations. Focusing retention strategies on this transition alone will jeopardise retention and advancement efforts
  • Focus on talent transitions: Millennial women need extra support through key transitions in their career, including university to first job and changing roles. Start early and pursue targeted interventions at critical career and life junctions
  • Propose millennial women’s strategies as broader talent strategies: Gender and age bracket are not primary factors related to preferences and reported departure drivers. By implementing strategies and programs informed by the needs of millennial women, leaders will simultaneously be addressing what matters most to broader talent pools.

In summary, what is surprising about millennial women is also good news for organisational leaders. With preferences merging across genders and generations, leaders have the opportunity to retain and advance their top talent (regardless of age or gender) by focusing on common priorities, including: fair compensation, ongoing learning and development, and interesting and meaningful work.