Why are women walking away from leadership?


The barriers for women to succeed in leadership are many and varied.
Image source: Getty Images

A recent Women in the Workplace report from Leanin.org and McKinsey, found that women leaders are leaving their roles and switching jobs at the highest rate ever, and at a higher rate than men[1].

It’s widely accepted that diversity in leadership comes with clear business benefits, so this drain of female leadership talent leads to negative consequences for companies struggling to hold onto their talented women. And it’s no secret that women are already significantly underrepresented in leadership roles – in Australia just 6% of ASX300 CEOs and 26% of executive leadership roles are held by women[2].

But this is not about a lack of ambition, or for want of trying.

The fact remains, the barriers for women to succeed in leadership are many and varied. The reality of life at the top still doesn’t factor in the pressures on women which make them more vulnerable to burnout, so they’re left stretched, unfilled and wondering: is this it?

For female leaders, it’s no longer a case of if we can’t see it, we can’t be it. It’s that women can now see it, but they don’t want to be it. The version of leadership that’s being served, just isn’t appealing.

Our societal expectation of gender norms is also keeping the brakes on for women aspiring to leadership, with women still carrying out the majority of domestic labour, and gender expectations influencing the education, workforce participation and career trajectories of both women and men.

So, how can companies tap into female leadership talent, create sustainable leadership pathways, and build a truly inclusive culture?

Start with a vision

Thinking of diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) as an add-on or a nice to have for your company is missing the point. DEI needs to be factored into every level of an organisation if it’s truly going to succeed, and this starts with leadership.

Having a leadership team with a clear vision that’s aligned to your business values, means a senior team who are willing to truly go on the journey towards inclusion. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Instead of putting DEI in the too-hard basket, or assigning it to middle-managers who see it as another thing on their to-do list, start with your strategic objectives, and make DEI a part of each of these.

How can you embed it into every department and business action? From onboarding to offboarding, and every stage of the employee lifecycle? DEI should be a factor in your annual reporting, in your employee handbooks, and in every project and business metric.

If it’s embedded in your business culture as an ongoing conversation, you’re more likely to succeed in achieving better representation and loyalty at every employee level.

This vision is also key when building capacity into your teams. In my work, I’ve found that when teams are given autonomy, resources and leadership support, they are able to create their own guidelines for how they want to operate, inline with the business’s vision.

For example, working recently with a construction company we came up with ‘The Very Simple Playbook’, listing three things to use as a foundation across all aspects of the business to build respectful relationships, in particular around DEI and women.

Supporting teams to create the ‘how’ of the vision where appropriate helps them own it and drive it.

Understand why women are leaving

The Women in the Workplace report identified women are keen to progress to leadership positions, but face barriers such as microaggressions which undermine their authority, having their judgment questioned more often than men, and not being supported with their care and parental responsibilities[3].

Women are also often doing more with less resources, and they’re not acknowledged for it. They’re expected to take the lead on supporting employee wellbeing and fostering a culture of inclusion – critical work, that leads to them being spread more thinly and mainly goes unrecognised and unrewarded.

The report also noted that women want the companies they work for to prioritise flexibility, employee wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion[4]. So, if companies don’t take action today, they risk also alienating a new generation of women who aspire to leadership.

Recent research from LinkedIn found that 36% of leaders are reducing flexible working and hybrid working roles, and that the first items on the chopping block of Australian companies are flexible working, learning and development, and employee wellbeing, which shows we’ve still got a long way to go in embedding DEI into our workplaces. This kind of short-term cost cutting, leads to long-term talent drains.

Unleash diverse economic potential

The good news is that by unleashing the potential of DEI, and bringing Australian gender norms more in line with reality, our society would be more inclusive and more prosperous – $128bn larger every year on average[5].

But to unleash this economic potential, we need to understand the current reality: Australia is falling behind on measures of gender equity, and has dropped from 15th position in 2006 to 43rd position in 2022 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.

For leaders, this is an opportunity. To truly build equality into businesses, and reap the resulting rewards: research shows that increasing female representation on the boards of ASX-listed companies leads to a 4.9% increase in company market value[6].

Changes such as removing gender signifiers from resumes and job applications, using more inclusive language in hiring campaigns and increasing transparency in pay negotiations, can help bring more gender diversity to senior leadership roles.

Leading with a gender equity strategy, which is tracked and reported on over time, is also critical for real change and business accountability – especially important in times of economic uncertainty, when DEI initiatives are often relegated to the bottom drawer.

[1] Women in the Workplace report 2022

[2] CEW Senior Executive Census 2021

[3] Women in the Workplace 2022

[4] Women in the Workplace 2022

[5] Deloitte Breaking the Norm report 2022

[6] Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre: Gender Equity Insights 2020

Danielle Dobson is the founder of Code Conversation.