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from the ‘great break up’ to the great make-up - what companies can do to retain female leaders

Our partner IWG’s Group Chief Commercial Officer, Fatima Koning on why so many women are leaving senior leadership positions - and what companies can do about it.

For women in the workplace, it’s becoming clear that the post-pandemic era offers good news and bad news. After suffering disproportionately high job losses at the height of Covid-19, data from the USA’s National Women’s Law Center shows that female employment is on the rise - and the UK’s Office for National Statistics tells a similar story.

Yet according to Lean In’s recent Women in the Workplace report, we’re in the midst of what its writers call a ‘great breakup’ - a phenomenon that’s causing female leaders to leave their jobs at the highest rate ever witnessed. At the same time, women want to lead, with more than a third of women wanting to be in a leadership role in the next 5 years according to a study about female millennials in the workplace by EY and the female factor.

For individual women, the move from one role to another may represent progress - but for ambitious companies focused on growth, stemming this exodus of female talent is vital.

setting the scene

Put simply, most companies can’t afford to lose female leaders. They don’t have enough of them as it is.

In 2021, I supported a BrandedU and WOMEN Inc. campaign that highlighted this issue in my home country, the Netherlands: a nation where there are more CEOs named Peter than women CEOs.

Lean In’s study points to the same problem. It found that only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, while just one in 20 is a woman of colour. They put this down to the ‘broken rung’ women encounter when they first try to step up into management: a point in their careers where for every 100 men who are promoted, just 87 women move up the ladder.

Even worse, for every woman at director level who is promoted, two are now choosing to leave their company. This matters not only on principle but because diversity in businesses drives success, promotes productivity and helps to establish a healthy company culture.

As a female leader of diverse teams in 120 markets around the world, here’s what I’ve learned about how companies can turn the ‘great breakup’ into the great make-up.

women want work-life balance

First and foremost, companies need to consider the balance between the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that affect women’s willingness to stay in their roles.

Key among pull factors is a clear, effective hybrid working policy. According to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor and world-renowned expert on hybrid working, companies that offer this kind of flexibility can expect to see resignation rates decline by as much as 35%.

Hybrid working is especially important for women, who still tend to shoulder more domestic responsibilities than men. In my own life, it makes a vital difference: I’m empowered to co-parent my daughter, take good care of myself and progress in my career - priorities that would be far more difficult to manage successfully if I were travelling back and forth to a central office every day.

By cutting down the need for commuting, companies give back valuable time to their people. With exhaustion and burnout rates highest among women, this is of particular significance for female employees - and the companies that need to keep them.

Post-pandemic, few of us want to return to ‘business as usual’, but it seems women are especially reluctant. The Women in the Workplace report makes clear that young women are highly ambitious, but not prepared to sacrifice their wellbeing in order to advance at work. IWG’s own data paints a similar picture, with 72% of people saying they’d forgo a 10% pay rise in favour of retaining hybrid working.

What does this mean for companies? That hybrid working is important for existing women employees and for attracting fresh female talent. Without it, companies will struggle to recruit or retain women at all levels, seriously damaging diversity and hampering their future success.

consider company culture

When it comes to ‘push’ factors, company culture can be a major influence on women’s decisions to abandon leadership roles. In fact, a pleasant work environment is the biggest source of motivation for women according to a study done by EY and the female factor in 2022 about what female millennials want from the workplace.

According to Women in the Workplace, many women experience microaggressions that undermine their authority. The report found that colleagues are more likely to question a female leader’s judgement or suitability for her role, and also stated that women reported personal characteristics, such as being a parent, have played a part in them being passed over for promotion.

In other words, the presence of women in an organisation - even at senior levels - doesn’t mean the firm has achieved fairness. Even now, it seems female colleagues are more likely to undertake unpaid, undervalued office ‘housework’ such as watering plants, tidying communal areas and ensuring the kitchen is stocked. In order to retain female talent, companies need to consider the gap that might exist between how equal culture looks and how equal it feels.

Investing in women via coaching schemes and ensuring fair recruitment for promotions is key. With my own teams, I regularly challenge the cultural norms and social conditioning that can hold women back. Perfectionism is a perfect example: as women, we’re raised to try and get everything right, while men feel freer to make mistakes. I tell all my people that being 70% sure about something is usually sure enough! Adopting that ‘can do’ approach enables innovation across the board, but it’s especially liberating for women.

Companies that consider not just what people, but what women need in terms of motivation, encouragement and confidence-building, will find it a worthwhile effort.

making hybrid work

Adopting hybrid working is a positive step towards improved recruitment and retention of female talent. However, it’s not a panacea: companies need to create their hybrid policies with care, offer adequate training for hybrid leaders and continuously monitor how well the model is working.

It’s also worth noting that hybrid working is more likely to help level the playing field if male and female employees are encouraged to take up the offer equally. Allowing the development of ‘two tier’ teams, where some (likely male) employees spend more time at the company HQ than their female colleagues, could accidentally entrench, rather than ease, unfairness.

This is one reason to consider the provision of local, flexible workspace for employees: professional environments close to home where they can work without domestic distractions, and without the burden of a long commute. the female factor partnered with IWG to do just that, giving our people access to 3,500 locations around the world.

supporting success

Finally, it’s important to remember that while Lean In’s report shows women are leaving senior leadership roles, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re leaving the workplace altogether.

Rather, the study highlights the very real danger that, more readily than ever, women will vote with their feet when they’re unhappy. This is another double whammy for companies that are reluctant to embrace the hybrid model or create cultures that meet women’s needs: not only will they lose top talent - it may well go to their competitors.

In 2022, companies simply cannot afford to be without diverse, inclusive leadership. Inequality of opportunity reduces productivity, stifles creativity and damages innovation.

Right now, women are as ambitious as ever - but their drive extends to rejecting working cultures that don’t serve them. My experience, both as a mentee and a leader, shows that when employers support women’s success, everyone wins.

If you want to not only retain your female leaders, but give them the opportunity to thrive with flexible workspace options close to home, why not give them a free trial of their favourite office space here.

P.S. you might even become our office neighbour!

About IWG

IWG was founded in Brussels in 1989, with the express purpose of providing workspaces that are convenient, comfortable and above all accessible. They have pioneered flexible working over 30 years ago and have continued to lead the market, and redefine the whole workplace industry, ever since. For them, it is not just about a physical space. It is about providing an entire ecosystem that supports business on a global level and highly localised businesses too.

They are the world’s number one workspace provider globally, helping 8 million people across six continents in 3,300+ office spaces work flexibly and more productively.


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