The Great Breakup: Why are women in management splitting up with work?

4 August 2023 | By: Newcastle University | 3 min read

A ‘Great Breakup’ is happening. Talented women are choosing to leave the workplace and look for different experiences, and if organisations don’t take action, they risk losing both the current and next generations of women leaders.

Dr Nicola Patterson and Professor Sharon Mavin of Newcastle University give us their insights on what is driving this surge, and what leaders can do to help before it’s too late.



  1. Are women in management leaving the workplace?

  2. Why are women leaders leaving work?

  3. What can leaders do to help?

  4. Recommended leadership programmes


Are women in management leaving the workplace?

Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen, and ambitious young women are prepared to do the same, says the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Co (2022).

One of the most high-profile Great Breakups was the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who precisely illustrates how women in leadership become ‘Tall Poppies’ and have to be cut down. In Jacinda’s case, this was not just in the government but through social media, clickbait and 24/7 media cycles. The previous woman New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark commented that ‘Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which is unprecedented’[1].


Why are women leaders leaving work?

Women in leadership are as ambitious as men and as competitive as men[2][3] but are increasingly aware of finding themselves in organisations where they will not progress.

Women leaders are more likely to experience micro-aggressions from women as well as men[4], have their judgement questioned or be mistaken for someone junior. They experience sexism, sex-bias, misogyny, and discrimination in leadership. Women in management are also more likely to report that personal characteristics, such as their gender or being a parent, have played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead. It is not clear to women leaders, how they progress in their organisations[5].

Yet the McKinsey report also found that women leaders are doing more to support employee well-being and foster inclusion. This comes ‘on top of the day job’ which spreads them thin and is mostly unrewarded. The research found that ‘it’s increasingly important to women leaders that they work for companies that prioritise flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)’. Women leaders are more than 1.5 times as likely as men at their level to have left a previous job because they wanted to work for a company that was more committed to DEI[5].

Young women care deeply about the opportunity to advance—more than two-thirds of women under 30 want to be senior leaders. Young women are also more likely than current women leaders to say they’re increasingly prioritising flexibility and company commitment to well-being and DEI. Companies that don’t take action may struggle to recruit and retain the next generation of women leaders[5].

Women in leadership are feeling excluded from top positions in society and in organisations. When women leaders feel they belong, their uniqueness is valued and they have insider status, shared information, participation in decision-making, and have a voice.


What can leaders do to help?

Leaders can recognise that it is not up to the minority to fix the problem. They can develop an approach to inclusion which puts people at the heart of their leadership practice. In our leadership programmes, we develop inclusive leadership which supports you to develop your leadership practice in organisational contexts.

  • Through learning approaches, we introduce you to ways you can raise your awareness to and challenge your assumptions and biases to develop inclusive approaches to your leadership practice.
  • We consider the challenges that women in leadership and those with minority identities can face.
  • We focus on the significant changes in work and society and ask you to consider wicked problems, such as gender equity in a context of social justice for your leadership in organisations, for society and the Sustainable Development Goals. Examples include neurodiversity, gender equity, racial equity, skills and digital poverty in the future of work. We safely take you out of your comfort zone to consider leadership in new innovative ways.

Throughout the programmes, in a safe context, we consider aspects of individual uniqueness, and approaches to facilitating belonging, through research, policy and your experiences, combined with those of other learners, and encourage you to experiment with new inclusive leadership approaches in your organisation.


Recommended leadership programmes:

  • Strategic Leadership MSc is a part-time, flexible, work-based programme. It's delivered using a blended learning model. You'll have monthly one-day study blocks on campus during teaching time. This will still allow you to study flexibly around your commitments. The MSc is designed for established organisational leaders and for those aspiring to become one.
  • The Level 7 Senior Leader Apprenticeship is a qualification aimed at individuals who are in, or moving into, strategic roles. It will support organisations that want to build leadership capacity within their team. We work closely with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). The apprenticeship is a vocational part-time programme, which allows learners to study alongside work. It combines personal and professional development with a focus on workplace performance allowing employees to utilise learning in the workplace throughout the programme.
  • Coaching and Mentoring for Leaders is a new 10-week programme that is mainly studied online with three individual campus days to facilitate networking and skills building. The programme is aimed at leaders who want to focus on building relationships within their practice, creating enabling environments for leadership to flourish.

Find out more:

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[1] Clarke, Helen.

[2] Benschop, Yvonne, Van Den Brink, Marieke, Doorewaard, Hans, Leenders, Joke (2013). Discourses of ambition, gender and part-time work. Human Relations, 66(5), 699-723.

[3] Mavin, S. and Yusupova, M., (2022). ‘I’m competitive with myself’: A study of women leaders navigating neoliberal patriarchal workplaces. Gender, Work & Organization.

[4] Mavin, Sharon, Grandy, Gina, Williams, Jannine (2014). Experiences of women elite leaders doing gender: Intra‐gender micro‐violence between women. British Journal of Management, 25(3), 439-455.

[5] Mckinsey & Co.