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Why women of color are leaving, and how to rethink your DE&I strategy

The Great Attrition has the potential to substantially erode DE&I gains, particularly among women of color. Three actions hold the key to supporting these employees during the pandemic and beyond.

Leads McKinsey’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work; directs initiatives focused on establishing inclusive, productive workplace cultures that support greater collaboration and innovation from a diverse workforce

Ruth Imose

Researches, develops products, and counsels clients on talent strategy topics including DE&I, performance management, and talent selection and assessment

Supports organizations in developing talent as a competitive advantage, with specific focus on building more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces

Nicolette Rainone

Advises organizations with particular expertise regarding talent management, learning and development, and behavioral science

Between the closure of schools and childcare facilities and the blow to service-oriented businesses that employ many women, the pandemic has forced a great number of them out of the workforce. Among those who remain, the unequal distribution of household and caretaking duties has clearly taken its toll, with 42 percent of women reporting high rates of burnout compared with 35 percent of men. Our Great Attrition research shows the impact on women of color may be even more acute. While 35 percent of White women said they were planning to leave their job in the next 3-6 months, the rate jumped to 46 percent for women of color, suggesting that organizations must take a more nuanced approach in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts.

Many companies focus their diversity efforts on broad groups—women, Black employees, or employees with disabilities—and fail to consider that many employees belong to multiple, overlapping identity groups. This concept is known as intersectionality. Our research shows that women of color continue to have more negative experiences at work than women in general.

For leaders, three actions hold the key to supporting women of color during the pandemic and beyond:

  1. Embed an intersectional DE&I focus into formal talent mechanisms. Review your pipeline, as well as promotion rates, succession plans, and participation in development programs, with a focus on the advancement of women of color to understand where specific challenges may exist for these talent segments.

    Encourage leaders to sponsor and mentor employees from underrepresented groups by proactively connecting or involving them in important decisions. While sponsorship programs have grown in popularity, leaders must ensure they are designed to meet the needs of employees who identify with multiple underrepresented groups. For instance, a North American financial services firm focused on equitable access within their sponsorship program in response to reports that women of color were experiencing less access to this resource and fewer opportunities to connect with others.

  2. Offer benefits that meet needs most felt by women of color. Providing the benefits and flexibility that women of color need is critical to retaining them. Leaders must start by listening—whether through focus groups and pulse surveys or dedicated inclusion assessments—and then adjust return-to-office plans and broader benefits accordingly.

    Our research has shown that 44 percent of White women and 59 percent of women of color cited their desire to care for family as a reason they planned to leave their job. Organizations would benefit from getting creative to relieve their employees’ caretaking burdens through actions like providing direct financial support or introducing family-supportive policies. One large software retailer, for example, conducts weekly pulse surveys to inform real-time adjustments. These efforts benefit all employees while also helping to meet needs most felt by women of color.

  3. Track the impact of efforts for women of color and hold leaders accountable. DE&I efforts have led to increases in women’s representation across all levels of the corporate pipeline over the past five years. However, women of color remain even more underrepresented, with 4 percent of C-Suite leaders being women of color compared to White women’s 20 percent. Failing to consider intersectionality in evaluation efforts will tell an incomplete story of impact.

    To fully address obstacles amidst the pandemic’s challenges, leaders must track how women of color are affected by new and existing policies and practices. Many companies that take DE&I progress seriously also hold leaders accountable, incorporating goals and metrics around diversity and/or inclusion into performance reviews for senior leaders or leaders more broadly in the organization.

The Great Attrition has the potential to substantially erode DE&I gains, particularly among women of color. However, employers that work to understand the challenges and address the needs of women of color will find that, even in the midst of the Great Attrition, diversity gains are possible.

The authors would like to thank Bonnie Dowling, Jess Huang, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Ishanaa Rambachan for their meaningful contributions to this post.

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This blog post is part of a series on the Great Attrition, exploring the immediate actions leaders can take to retain and attract talent at a time when employees are leaving their jobs in droves. Topics include how to keep top-performing talent, the nuances emerging in different industries, adaptability as an antidote to burnout, the implications for the labor shortage and what to do about it, how to build a sense of community in the new employee landscape, the complex relationship between DE&I and attrition, the importance of employee experience, socioemotional support as the organization’s social glue, the need to reimagine and personalize flexibility at work, and competition from the gig economy and entrepreneurism.

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