Women in business

The real reasons why women leave the workplace

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Women in leadership event "Her voice counts" explores some of the reasons why female talent exits.

Today’s media often highlights childcare costs and personal factors as key factors driving women out of the workplace. While these are undoubtedly crucial issues, recent insights suggest a more profound truth: women are leaving due to organisational shortcomings.

According to Joy Burnford founder and CEO of Encompass Equality and author of the best-selling book Don't fix women: the practical path to gender equity equality at work, retaining female talent is not actually about women, it's about the organisations they work for. Joy told the 200+ attendees at the Grant Thornton women in leadership event for Europe and the Middle East that this revelation emphasises the need to address culture, support systems, work overload, career progression, and job design if we aspire to retain talented female professionals.


Misunderstood and undermined

To illustrate the experiences of women in the workplace, Joy shared the story of a client named Rebecca (a pseudonym), a highly ambitious and career-driven individual who had recently been promoted to the head of legal. “She was delighted by this promotion. However, her enthusiasm gradually waned as she navigated a predominantly male-dominated environment, where she felt misunderstood and undervalued. Microaggressions and daily encounters of colleagues undermining her became her unfortunate reality.” Ultimately, these experiences saw Rebecca leave that workplace. She’s now head of legal for a leading building society in the UK, which has a completely different culture. “When I speak to her now, she's like a different person. She has supportive leadership, developmental opportunities, and a nurturing atmosphere that values her contributions.”

Rebecca's story sheds light on the significance of addressing microaggressions and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and included. While Joy acknowledged that not all organisations may experience such issues to the same extent as Rebecca's former workplace, it remains crucial to cultivate awareness of the conversations and dynamics within teams, as they can profoundly affect individuals' experiences.


Three keys to good culture

Joy outlined three areas she believes are pivotal for cultivating a gender-inclusive culture: flexibility, allyship, and a coaching culture. Flexibility encompasses not only where individuals work but also how and when they work. Implementing diverse work arrangements such as job-sharing and personalised flexibility can alleviate the burden of overwork and promote work-life balance. Allyship represents the active support and collaboration between colleagues, not limited to men supporting women but also women supporting men. Encouraging open dialogue about balancing work and home life fosters a more inclusive environment. A coaching culture allows people to develop the skills to listen, ask the right questions, and demonstrate empathy and curiosity. This helps align an organisation's macro culture with the micro cultures within teams.


Menopause matters

Kathy Abernethy, menopause specialist, founding member, current trustee and the past chair of the British Menopause Society and director of menopause services at Peppy noted that one in four women consider leaving their jobs because of menopause and 10% of those with symptoms are likely to leave the workplace.  Organisations who successfully support affected women have policies backed by action, understand that menopause is a workplace not a personal issue and that one size does not fit all. Menopause can also lead to women not reaching their full potential due to various physical and emotional symptoms. She said that organisations should address it as a business issue rather than just a women's issue, providing support and policies that cater to the individual needs of employees experiencing menopause, including access to medical treatment and flexible working arrangements.


How can a company create psychologically safer and more inclusive environments?

Karitha Ericson, GTIL’s global leader of network culture and capability reflected on the poor progress of the network when it comes to gender balance. 32% of senior management position in the mid-market businesses we serve are held by women. 

Attendees at the event discussed how organizations can create more psychologically safe and inclusive environments. Key points made included:

1. The need to acknowledge that different companies and countries are at different stages when it comes to gender diversity and inclusion. What may be considered ‘outrageous’ in one organization or region could be commonplace in another, so strategies and approaches may need to be tailored to specific contexts.

2. The importance of individuals' comfort levels in discussing sensitive topics, and the need to create an environment where people feel safe to talk about things they may otherwise avoid.

3. The value of role models in inspiring and supporting career growth. Seeing others who have succeeded is important and attendees acknowledged their responsibility to act as role models within their organisations, to pave the way for future generations and spread positive change.

4. While there is currently a focus on achieving work/life balance for women, it is equally important to create an inclusive culture for men. They emphasised the need for gender balance and an inclusive approach that benefits everyone.

5. The need to bridge the perception gap, noting that some issues faced by women may not be equally acknowledged or valued by men. More information and empathy are key to this.


The women in leadership event, called Her Voice Counts, included excellent insights from external speakers and several of our Grant Thornton leaders, as well as opportunities for attendees to provide their input.