Why are so many Gen Y women flaming out by 30?

What happens when you combine completing your last semester of full time university with a photography competition. Entry for Canon Photo5 2009 Brief 4: Spectacles Portraiture.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Jessica M. Cross.

The latest economic downturn wasn't dubbed the "mancession" for nothing. Women now outnumber men on college campuses, get more degrees and participate in the labor force at about the same rate as men, who lost far more jobs in the last recession than female workers.

All of which is great news for the ladies. But does all this successful striving have a dark side? Forbes recently suggested it does in an article by Larissa Faw. She cites research showing that the ranks of women on the corporate ladder thin dramatically as they climb:

Today, 53 percent of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37 percent for mid-management roles and 26 percent for vice presidents and senior managers, according to McKinsey research. Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage.

What's behind this winnowing of female business talent? Faw suggests that one reason may be women's reluctance to take care of themselves, leading to subsequent burnout.

Men are more likely than women to do things that help their personal wellbeing at work, thus negating burnout, according to the Captivate Network. Men are 25 percent more likely to take breaks throughout the day for personal activities, 7 percent more likely to take a walk, 5 percent more likely to go out to lunch, and 35 percent more likely to take breaks "just to relax."

On author Keith Ferrazzi's myGreenlight blog Sara Grace agrees that women are letting their impulses to please and do well sabotage their long-term advancement. She asks why women don't take as many breaks as their male colleagues, answering her own question:

Because we think we're not allowed to -- we're at work. Unlike boys, we're brought up to be orderly and pleasing, and please we do, by being brilliant, bien sur, but also through means that can hurt us: multitasking, working ourselves to death, slavishly obeying our perfectionist impulses meanwhile cutting other corners that shouldn't be cut.

This amped up and unrelenting pursuit of external measures of success may have started particularly early for this generation of young women who competed fiercely to get into college. "These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted," Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse told Forbes.

But is this drive to please everyone really all that's behind young women's burnout? When Grace mentioned the stats on female burnout to co-workers, they found significant factors missing in the discussion: "Talk about planning a wedding (or two) as one of our female coworkers is doing now, starting a family, and dealing with aging and ailing parents," said one.

Obviously the burden of family responsibilities still falls more heavily on women and that could be contributing to their burnout. And so does the burden of guilt and stress about our choices. "The question is, particularly as women, can we just sit back and not judge other people's choices, make the choices we want to make and feel good about them?" Jennifer Allyn, managing director in the office of diversity for PricewaterhouseCoopers has asked.

But there is one other possible explanation of why women are stepping off the career treadmill before reaching the top -- they don't like it. Recent studies have shown women tend to grow less ambitious with age. Perhaps women are dropping out of the corporate rat race simply because they find it unfulfilling in its current incarnation of long hours and tooth and claw competition.

Why do you think Gen Y women are burning out so young and in such great numbers?

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.