Make up, don’t break up

Retaining female leadership should be more of a priority in the workplace


For women in the workplace, it’s becoming clear that the post-pandemic era offers good and bad news. After suffering disproportionately high job losses at the height of COVID-19, data from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) shows that female employment is on the rise. In South Africa, the labour force participation rate for women in Q2:2022 was 53% as compared to the same time in 2021, when the rate amounted to 46.21% – a jump of nearly 7% – and that is without taking the second half of 2022 and the beginning of this year into
account. Yet, several experts believe that, at the highly skilled level, we are in the midst of what its writers call a ‘great break-up’ – a phenomenon causing female leaders to leave their jobs at the highest rate ever witnessed. For individual women, the move from one role to another may represent progress, but for ambitious firms focused on growth, preventing this exodus of female talent is vital.

Push versus pull

Put simply, most companies can’t afford to lose female leaders. They don’t have enough of them as it is. Lean In and McKinsey’s study supports this notion. 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 into management: a point in their careers where, for every 100 men promoted, just 87 women move up the ladder. Even worse, for every promoted woman at the director level, two are now choosing to leave their companies. This matters in principle because business diversity drives success, promotes productivity and helps establish a healthy company culture. Companies can, however, turn the great break-up into a great make-up. First, firms 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, Stanford economics professor and world-renowned expert on hybrid working, companies offering this kind of flexibility can expect quit rates to decline by as much as 35%. Hybrid working is especially important for women, who still shoulder more domestic responsibilities than men. By reducing the need for commuting, employers give back valuable time to their people. With exhaustion and burnout rates highest among women, this is particularly significant for female employees – and the firms that need to keep them. Few of us want to return to ‘business as usual’ postpandemic, but women seem especially reluctant. The Women in the Workplace report makes clear that young women are ambitious but not prepared to sacrifice their wellbeing to advance at work. International Workplace Group’s (IWG) 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 essential for existing female employees and for attracting fresh female talent. Without it, businesses can’t recruit or retain women at all levels, seriously damaging diversity and hampering their future success.

Aim for fairness

When it comes to ‘push’ factors, company culture can be a major influence on women’s decisions to abandon leadership roles. 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 that 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, female colleagues seem more likely to undertake unpaid, undervalued office ‘housework’ such as watering plants, tidying communal areas and ensuring that the kitchen is stocked. 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 promotion recruitment is key. Challenge
the cultural norms and social conditioning that can hold women back. Perfectionism is a perfect example: women are raised to try to get everything right, while men feel freer to make mistakes. Being 70% sure about something is usually sure enough! Adopting that ‘can do’ approach enables innovation across the board, but it’s incredibly liberating for women. Organisations considering what people and women need in terms of motivation, encouragement and confidence building will find it worthwhile.

Hybrid helps

Adopting hybrid working is a positive step towards improved female talent recruitment and retention. However, it’s not a panacea: employers must create their hybrid policies with care, offer adequate training for hybrid leaders and continuously monitor how well the model works. It’s also worth noting that hybrid working is morelikely 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. Finally, while Lean In and McKinsey’s report shows women are leaving senior leadership roles, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re leaving the workplace altogether. Instead, the study highlights the genuine danger that, more readily than ever, women will vote with their feet when they’re unhappy. This is another double whammy for firms that are reluctant to embrace the hybrid model or create cultures that meet women’s needs: they will lose top talent who may also go to their competitors. In 2023, 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.

Text | Fatima Koning Photography | fizkes
Fatima Koning is Group Chief Commercial Officer at International
Workplace Group. For more information, go to

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