The Leaky Canoe & The Hidden Cost of Success for Women

Arin N. Reeves
4 min readJun 15, 2023

There has been a steady drip of research in the past few years demonstrating how stressed, anxious, lonely, depressed, and burned-out women are in workplaces. On the surface, the research feels old and familiar. We’ve been studying the impacts of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, gender inequities, and implicit gender bias on women’s lives for decades. We have recorded how these things lead to the stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and burnout experienced by women in workplaces, and gender equity efforts have focused on neutralizing these forces so that women can be more successful at work. And, these efforts have been working…sort of. We are seeing more women break barriers and achieve pioneering successes in their workplaces, and the recent steady drip of research demonstrating how stressed, anxious, lonely, depressed, and burned-out women is starting to tell us exactly what the barrier-breaking and pioneering are costing women.

A February 2023 study entitled The Cost of Loneliness: The Invisible Force That Undermines Women As They Rise found that “senior-level women report feeling a sense of loneliness driven by isolation, lack of support, and being unable to be their true selves at work,” and that “the feelings of loneliness or isolation increased as women climb the ranks [while] men report their loneliness or isolation decreased the further they’ve gone in their careers.” In 2022, a McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org study found that “women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate ever, and the gap between women and men in senior roles quitting their jobs is the largest it’s ever been.” As Rachel Thomas, the CEO of LeanIn.org surmised, “It’s a disastrous situation…you’re not promoting enough women into the leadership ranks, and now you have more women leaving leadership roles.” Most of the successful women in these studies cited their mental and physical health as the primary reason for leaving.

Women pay a higher cost than men to be successful, and when they become successful, they pay a higher cost than their male counterparts to stay successful.

Women are working harder than ever to break through glass ceilings, and they are leaving faster than ever when they assess what it has cost them. It’s a disastrous situation indeed. The research is difficult to read and process; it’s even more difficult to hear the stories of women — so many different women, so many similar stories — and feel their pain as they make the impossible decision to leave what they’ve worked so hard for in order to just be healthy. These are not women without ambition, grit, resilience, confidence, or any of the other things women keep being told they need more of in order to be successful. These are some of the most ambitious, hard-working, gritty, resilient, confident, and simply powerful women I’ve known. These are exactly the women we need in leadership positions to help us navigate today’s challenges. And these are exactly the women who are leaving.

It is disastrous. It is frustrating. It is pissing me off because we aren’t talking about it enough, and we definitely aren’t doing enough to prevent it.

In my book, In Charge, I talk about the frustration that women feel when we hear that we need more “self-care” in our lives. I use the example of rowing a canoe with holes in it and how exhausting it is to row a leaky canoe if you have to use one hand to get rid of the water flowing through the holes while you do your best to row with the other hand. Of course, someone rowing in a leaky canoe is going to be more stressed and burned out than someone whose canoe does not leak. These holes are the things that are driving women out of workplaces — being asked to do emotional work that doesn’t get recognized or compensated, to fit themselves into predominantly male cultures, and to manage responsibilities outside of work that their male counterparts cannot even imagine. Self-care may work if someone is exhausted from a tough day of rowing, but self-care does nothing for someone who has to get back into that leaking canoe every day.

So, what’s the solution? Of course, it would be great if we could patch all the holes in women’s canoes or maybe even get them canoes that don’t leak. It is an important piece of gender equity work, but it is systemic change that will not be easy or immediate. In the meantime, the only thing I’ve seen work is the messy work of recognizing the cost that women are paying and finding ways to support women as they do what they need to do to survive…and thrive.

What can your organization do to support these women?

  • Acknowledge that women pay a heavy cost to become successful in predominantly male workplaces and that heavy cost sometimes becomes even heavier to sustain success.
  • Recognize and compensate women for the emotional labor, people management efforts, and the “culture nurturing” work that land in their laps.
  • Strengthen women’s communities (women’s initiatives, women’s resource groups, etc.) to be empowering spaces for women. It is enough of a business imperative for women to get together to neutralize the stress of being in predominantly male environments without creating additional goals that these communities need to achieve.

Women deserve better. Workplaces can do better.

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Arin N. Reeves

President of Nextions, best-selling author, a fierce advocate for justice, a catalyst for smarter thinking on inclusion and equity