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Maybe I’ve convinced you that the “pyramid problem” is more than a problem for women; it’s a real problem for business. Maybe I’ve convinced you that there is a compelling business case for solving it. If you want to solve it, you must understand its causes.

Obviously somewhere between the entry level (where women are 47.6% of the total) and the top (Catalyst says women are 7.5% of top earners in the Fortune 500 and 3.6% of CEO’s), women disappear. Where do they go? They leave one employer for another; they start their own businesses; or they simply quit climbing. For shorthand, let’s call all of this “leaving.” If having gender diversity is good for the bottom line, as Catalyst and McKinsey studies indicate, we need to understand why women “leave” so we know how to make them stay and keep moving up the organizational ladder.

That women leave their jobs at a higher rate than men is confirmed by data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and by private research. Two research groups, Catalyst and the Center for Work-Life Policy separate the causes into “pull factors”—things that entice women away from a job—and “push factors”—negative aspects of the work environment that make them want to leave. The 2010 report, “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited,” indicates the largest percentage of women who take “off-ramps” (detours from their career) cite child care or elder-care as the reason. Both are “push factors.”

While women’s role in the family is a very real reason women leave, trying to fix this issue alone will not solve the pyramid problem. First, this cause is exaggerated. The phrase, “Want to spend more time with the family” is a politically acceptable reason to leave a position that may mask more subtle reasons. Second, family responsibilities often become a cause of a decision to leave only when there are other factors—“push factors.” A woman juggling career and family who loves her job is less likely to leave than one who is unhappy with the workplace culture.

The biggest impact on retention of women will come from assuring that the organizational culture engages women as well as men. After family care, the next most frequently cited causes of women’s “off-ramp” decisions are lack of enjoyment or satisfaction with their job and feeling “stalled” in their careers. Both are indicators of low engagement (which is linked with low retention, productivity and profitability). I put into two categories the types of dissatisfaction reported by women:

  • Not having access to critical formal and informal networks, and
  • Not feeling valued.

Both undermine women’s feeling that they can succeed in a workplace and so contribute to the feeling of being “stalled.”

These push factors arise from two root causes: the “comfort principle” and “unconscious preferences.” They are examples of what a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly calls “invisible mind-sets.” These mind-sets create the push factors that make women disengage or leave.

The “comfort principle” is the natural preference to spend time with (and mentor and give work to) those most like ourselves. It can create barriers for women’s inclusion in social activities, good projects and mentoring relationships—all of which are key to feeling included and to succeeding. Awareness of this tendency can enable leaders to stop and monitor whether it is occurring—and spread around good assignments and mentoring.

Men are the architects of the U.S. business world. It is natural that concepts of leadership and excellence are more masculine than feminine in nature. Research bears this out. Women may not feel valued if performance criteria are influenced by “unconscious preferences” for masculine ways of doing things. Studies also show that women who lead in a masculine way are less likeable. They get trapped in a “double bind.” Women will feel more valued if leaders are aware of the differences in masculine vs. feminine approaches to work and appreciate women’s ways of accomplishing results–whether through masculine or feminine approaches.

Women who feel “stalled” don’t feel they can succeed in a job. The “comfort principle” can interfere with access to assignments that build experience, visibility and confidence. Unconscious preferences for masculine ways of getting results can negatively impact performance evaluations and chances for promotion.

Understanding the causes of women’s disengagement enables development of the right changes in a workplace. Leaders can implement systems to assure that the comfort principle and unconscious preferences don’t affect women’s access to formal and informal networks or how their contributions are measured. But they must also bring to conscious awareness the unconscious mind-sets that undermine women’s full engagement and keep the pyramid problem in place.