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A New Corporate Exodus Led By Women

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In March, I wrote about the lack of women in corporate boardrooms, especially diverse women.

Now that most companies have been through several rounds of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, a couple of disturbing trends have begun to emerge, promising to push back the advances made in the last decade to increase minorities and women in top jobs.

The first trend points to voluntary migration by women from top jobs. In an article published on Harvard Business Publishing’s website authored by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. She cites some interesting statistics. According to the Center’s research at five of the top financial firms, “twice as many women in top jobs (54%) as men (22%) are considering leaving their positions.”

Why are they considering leaving and where are they headed?

A noteworthy statistic by the Center for Work-Life Policy: 40% of the surveyed women are looking to move to different sectors with nonprofit being high on their list. A direct trend of this migration is the fact that fewer women at the top mean fewer role models and mentors for younger women, especially diverse women. Initiatives and work that organizations like Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, Women for Hire and Black Enterprise have been doing to raise these numbers, will suffer. Fewer role models mean fewer diverse candidates willing to aim high, compete for scholarships and grants, and advance in their careers.

To add to this, the trend hasn’t restricted itself to the U.S. In a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers among over 1,000 professionals in U.K., Europe and Australasia, 60% of the respondents believe that the this recession will reinforce the alleged glass ceiling for women, while 45% believe that this will lead more women to enter social enterprise roles.

Your Job, Your Life | A CNBC Special Report
Your Job, Your Life | A CNBC Special Report

It has taken many decades for women to become 46.5% of the workforce in America (according to Department of Labor statistics for 2008).

The DOL projects that this will increase to 49% by 2016. With the current recession and continued voluntary migration, we might never see the 50% figure. Progress made in the 21st century so far will get derailed to levels not seen in a long time.

In diversity surveys conducted by Vault this year including Fortune 1000 companies as well as government departments and agencies, the statistics coming in tell a worried story. (To read detailed surveys from 2008, click here.)Yes, layoffs have swept across almost every company surveyed. But when this reduction in employee count gets broken down into minorities and women, what’s left is a frightening mess of double-digit figures. These results that will be released in the coming months are in many ways an indication of how many barriers women, especially diverse women will have to negotiate for positions among executive management teams.

All is not yet lost.

There are indications that the worst is behind us, and not just because Bernanke said so.

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April became the third month in a row to show a continued decline in planned job cuts (132,590). To keep your company’s momentum going now, it is paramount that the focus shifts once again to retention of your company’s most important asset: human capital. When hiring picks up again, it will be this diversity of talent and thought that will become the deciding factor in progressive decisions, revenue, growth and expansion. The boardroom must once again begin the climb to diversity. And simple steps like development and training opportunities is the right starting point.

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Aman Singh is an Editor with Vault and works with Fortune 500 companies on reporting their diversity recruitment strategies and initiatives.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com