It’s 2023. What Will It Take To Retain Women In The Workplace And Enable Them To Thrive?



As I waited for the results of Deloitte’s 2023 Women @ Work: A Global Outlook survey I was hoping that we would see a vastly improved picture across the board compared to the previous year. After all, the 2022 research was conducted at a time when many were still dealing with the stress and repercussions of the previous two years. We had started to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of us were gradually returning to the office. But the events of the past two years had left many feeling exhausted and even burned out. For many (including me), a return to the office—even on a hybrid basis—also meant revisiting caring arrangements; and for some it meant going back into cultures that were not inclusive. For many leaders it also meant continuing to lead in a new way—one in which team members would not always be physically present.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, therefore, that the 2022 survey revealed such high levels of burnout, women being excluded when hybrid working, and experiences of non-inclusive behaviors in a workplace settings. Indeed, in 2022, nearly half of respondents told us they were feeling burned out, almost 60% of those working in a hybrid arrangement said they had been excluded, and around the same number told us that they had experienced non-inclusive behaviors in a work-place context over the past year. And burnout was driving women to look at new job opportunities, with nearly 40% of women who were looking to move citing this as the key driver.

So, this year we had hoped for better news. And, in those three critical areas, we indeed saw it, with experiences of burnout, exclusion while hybrid working, and non-inclusive behaviors all presenting improved data.

However, the underlying picture in each of these areas remains concerning as are the other findings, most of which either saw no movement or declines. So, what did 5,000 women across 10 countries tell us this year?

While burnout has decreased, mental health—and associated stigma—remains a concerning picture: This year saw fewer women saying they are burned out and women rated their mental health overall as slightly better than last year. However, nearly a third of women are burned out, over one-third rate their mental health as poor or very poor, more than half rate mental health as a top concern, around half say their stress levels are higher than a year ago—and only 37% of women say they feel able to switch off from work (down from 45% in 2022). This data underlines the importance of women being able to access support at work; yet, here the results show a further worrying decline over last year, with fewer women saying they get adequate support at work, and significantly fewer women feeling comfortable talking about mental health at work or disclosing mental health as the reason for taking time off.

Many women struggle through menstruation and menopause-related symptoms in silence at work: This year, for the first time, we asked women questions about their physical health. While we recognize that this is a personal issue, we wanted to gain an insight into the level of disruption that women’s health may be causing them when it comes to the workplace. The findings here were stark. Around one in five women told us that they experienced symptoms or challenges associated with menstruation or menopause. Of those experiencing such challenges with menstruation, 41% told us that they don’t take time off for this—instead they say they work through the pain and discomfort. When it comes to menopause, women are less likely to work through symptoms, albeit 20% still do so. And when it comes to those women who have taken time off for either, nearly one in five say they did not disclose the real reason. While this is obviously a personal choice, for many this will mean regular days off each month with an employer not understanding the real reason why.

Most respondents work full time, but many also bear the primary responsibility for domestic tasks; and many prioritize their partner’s careers over their own: With nearly nine in 10 of our respondents working full time, only one in 10 said that primary responsibility for domestic tasks such as cleaning or caring for dependents lay with their partner. More than 40% of respondents say they take on most of the responsibility for these tasks. And when it comes to whose career is prioritized, more than a third of women say they prioritize their partner’s career over their own. Even when women are the primary providers for their family, one in five prioritize their partner’s career, potentially limiting their own financial prospects and perpetuating inequalities in terms of career progression and pay.

More women left their employer over the past year than in 2020 and 2021 combined, with lack of flexibility being one of the top three drivers—yet flexible working is not a reality for many: Flexibility is continuing to drive career choices—in addition to the respondents who have already left their employers for this reason, lack of flexibility around working hours is the top reason cited by women currently looking to leave their employer. But stigma associated with flexible working remains—with a staggering 97% of women believing that asking for or taking advantage of flexible working could adversely impact their chances of promotion.

Despite fewer women experiencing non-inclusive behaviors this year, they remain commonplace and under-reported: 44% of respondents experienced harassment or microaggressions at work over the past year, with microaggressions being the most commonly experienced behaviors. One in 10 women who left their employer in the last 12 months did so as a result of experiencing harassment or microaggressions. While this year saw an increase in the number of women reporting microaggressions to their employer, this stands at under half (44%)—alongside this, fewer women reported their experience of harassment to their employer.

Women from under-represented groups report worse experiences in the workplace, including when it comes to experiencing non-inclusive behaviors: Women from under-represented groups, such as ethnic minorities, report worse experiences at work—for example, more than half experienced microaggressions and/or harassment (compared to 44% of women in the ethnic majority in their country). They are also more likely to describe their physical health and their mental health as poor and are less likely to feel supported by their employer when it comes to work/life balance. This may explain why nearly half of women in under-represented groups would not recommend their employer to friends or family (compared to a third of respondents overall).

Women are still not seeing enough progress on gender equality in the workplace: A massive nine in 10 women say they do not believe that their employer is taking concrete steps to deliver on their commitment to gender equality. Around half say they have not seen their employer make any progress over the past year.

But some are getting it right—and the results are clear to see: Over the past two years we have identified a small group of women who work for organizations that—based on the responses of these women—are getting it right. Unfortunately, while there has been improvement on some of the issues examined in this survey, we have seen almost no movement in the number of women who work for these “Gender Equality Leaders”. As with 2022, just 5% of respondents work for these organizations, up from 4% in 2021. Women who work for these organizations all report significantly more positive mental health, they are less likely to experience non-inclusive behaviors, are less likely to work through symptoms associated with menstruation and menopause, and all plan to stay longer with their employer—to this end, nearly 70% plan to stay with their employer for three years or more.

Learn from those getting it right—and take action

The responses of women working for “Gender Equality Leaders” provide us with a unique insight into the impact of getting it right—and the three components that are critical: an inclusive culture where women feel safe disclosing mental health issues and reporting non-inclusive behaviors; an enabling culture and approach when it comes to work/life balance underpinned by making flexible and hybrid working work for all; and empowering women to thrive by offering meaningful development and progression opportunities.

None of this is new—indeed these themes have consistently come out in our last three Women @ Work reports. What is striking is the fact that so many working women are still not feeling a shift in their organizations, despite increasing awareness of the need for employers to make progress on gender equality.

The 2023 Women @ Work report provides a unique global insight—into women’s experiences in the workplace and aspects of their lives outside of work. It shows us what is needed to bring about change on gender equality. It is now up to employers to make that happen.

Emma Codd is Global Inclusion Leader for Deloitte and leads on the development and delivery of the global inclusion strategy.

By Career Center
Career Center