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Local Female Leaders Look to Address Urgent Problem of Women Leaving the Workforce

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

On Thursday, October 15th, a group of Tucson's prominent female CEO's and leaders gathered in a working session to discuss the urgent problem that 1 in 4 women are leaving or downscaling their participation in the workforce.

This finding was recently published in a nation-wide study by McKinsey & Company and Lean In. The largest study ever conducted on women in corporate America, the study based their data on 317 companies, employing more than 12 million people. Over 40,000 women participated in the research.

The potential negative impacts of this seismic shift in the workforce on gender and racial parity could potentially be felt for decades.

"If we had a panic button, we'd be hitting it. Leaders must act fast or risk losing millions of women from the workforce and setting gender diversity back years." Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and co-founder of LeanIn.Org.

At a local level, Startup Tucson wanted to check in with important thought-leaders in our business and tech sectors, who would likely be on the front lines of feeling the pressures that COVID has brought to families across our community. Arizona is already significantly further behind other states when it comes to corporate gender and racial parity, with the estimated cost to our economy being $105.2 billion dollars of lost revenue and over 90,000 jobs (Empowered PhXX Collaborative, 2018).

The women ranged from early 30's to 60's and brought a wealth of experience and knowledge from numerous of our most prestigious companies and startups in the fields such as engineering, manufacturing, biotech, software, optical sciences, marketing, and business development.

Significant take-aways from the authentic and frank conversation included:

Overwhelmingly, the biggest protective factor women have felt over COVID has been their professional relationships with other women, both peers and mentors. Additionally, personal habits and consistent routines have helped keep the women progressing, focused, and have provided a sense of joy in the midst of the stress.

Invisible and unpaid labor--both at home and in the workplace-- was a significant topic of conversation and was identified as a primary driver for the sense of burnout that women are feeling in the workplace. In addition to a greater proportion of homeschooling and household labor that has been widely discussed, the group raised numerous nuanced examples of invisible labor in the workplace. For example, members of the group mentioned having to summon additional energy to "rally the troops" and create workplace connectivity, while other (male) leaders did not take the extra step of checking in with employees, empathizing, or addressing personal challenges staff are feeling.

The group identified the double-bind that what women need right now to continue to succeed at work is female mentorship and support, while at that same time, mentoring others is, again, an additional labor that mentors will have to undertake.

One potential solution is that both mentee and mentor share the labor and also create structures (such as agreed upon end dates) that facilitate strong boundaries and empowering experiences for both mentee and mentor.

A poignant moment in the discussion was when the experienced leaders in the group raised the level of concern, sounding the alarm that if we do not all act fast-- the consequences could be dire. These women shared their experiences entering the workforce at times when gender parity was significantly worse than it is today; they shared stories of being ignored, cast aside for advancement, and having no one to look to for female leadership. They shared their serious concerns that COVID could produce a generational gap, devoid of female leaders and mentors for the next generation.

While there is no simple, single solution to the issue we face, the group is determined to use their positions, experience, and voice to continue to demonstrate leadership in the face of unprecedented challenges.


We would love to hear more stories "from the field"! Here were the thought-questions we used to spur our discussion -- we would love to hear your answers to any of these. If you are feeling discouraged or overwhelmed, you are not alone. Please reach out to us directly if there are ways that we can support you and your professional growth.


  • One thing that has been a source of wellness/happiness for you in the past 8 months?

  • How have you seen COVID impacting your work, personally or within your team?

  • What has mentorship meant for you in your career?

  • What prevents effective mentorship for women in tech and business?

  • What can we as leaders in Tucson do better or differently to support women in tech and business?

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