High-Flying Women Shift Gears in the Recession

A voluntary migration is sweeping through the financial sector.

On Sunday, April 12, a front-page story in the New York Times documented a Wall Street exodus that goes beyond layoffs to voluntary exits by top talent fleeing to boutique firms, start-ups and elsewhere.

This trend is disturbingly true for women.

At five top financial firms, twice as many women in top jobs (54%) as men (22%) are considering leaving their positions, according to recent data from the Center for Work-Life Policy. What’s noteworthy is why women are headed out, and where they are going.

Today’s voluntary attrition is not about women being uncommitted to their careers or wanting more family time. On the contrary, our data shows that less than a quarter of the high-performing women who “had one foot out the door” in December 2008 planned to leave the workforce to stay home. The majority were recalibrating goals and shifting to other sectors.

The fact is this recession has made high echelon jobs in the financial sector less desirable for women. Once venerable brand-name organizations are losing their luster amid sagging revenue, mass layoffs, bailouts, cost cuts, bad PR and low morale. The psychological and emotional perks that once helped balance the time commitments of high pressure “extreme” jobs in the financial sector are waning.

For female talent this phenomenon is a very big deal. Companies that fail to deliver respect or pride — and jobs that fail to deliver meaning or purpose — are the equivalent of a cut in pay for many high-flying women. They want jobs that make them feel good about going to work and putting in a 12-hour day. Thus, in this environment, many top ranked women on Wall Street are bailing — pulling up stakes and moving to jobs that can deliver the emotional lift. According to CWLP data, among women who are contemplating quitting jobs in the financial sector almost 40% intend shifting to other sectors — and not-for-profit organizations are high on their wish list.

All this presents a few yellow lights — for organizations and individuals. First off, leading financial institutions are facing a depleted female talent pool, which has consequences now and down the road. When high-powered women quit, they thin the ranks of female mentors and role models available to younger women — making it less likely that a next generations of female talent will rise up through the ranks.

Secondly, for the women who leave, their emotional stock may go up in a new, more meaningful job, but they are also likely to take a pay cut and suffer the increased stress that comes with financial strain on the home front. This is, after all, a year when a great many husbands and partners are on a downward slide — losing bonuses and jobs.

There are dangers attached to trading money for meaning and purpose. Given women’s enhanced role as family breadwinners, these choices might not work well over the long run.

The original is here, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett @ Harvard Business Publishing