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Event blog: Why do women really leave the workforce?

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Ambition recently ran a survey with our female clients and candidates in order to find out if the common assumptions surrounding how women feel about and behave in their careers are actually true.  We then presented our findings to our clients at a panel event.

We wanted to discover the real reasons why many women leave their companies before reaching the most senior positions. This survey was undertaken across two sectors – financial services and professional services.

So why do women really leave their employers?

It has been a fascinating journey and we have been both encouraged and slightly disheartened by the results. There seems to be no doubt whatsoever that many women leave work at the point of starting a family, but what we have discovered is that in the majority of cases, this is not its because they are ready to start families.

Whilst it’s true to say that some women do choose to exit the work force to have children and may not necessarily be interested in returning to their former careers afterwards, we found that this section of the workforce was actually in the very noticeable minority. 

What we found to be more accurate is that far more women leave their roles, companies and careers due to the lack of opportunity to progress. This inability to be able to compete on a level playing field is by far the most common reason given by the women we surveyed as to why they leave their roles and this is often manifested by leaving work to have children. 

This truth is often hidden to the employer as they simply don’t recognise the real driver behind the behaviour, rather they see only the behaviour itself. We found that the point at which many women get most frustrated about the lack of development is the point at which this clashes with the time they consider having families. 

These women told us that they chose to start having families because of the inability to move ahead with their careers so ‘they might as well do it now’. 

Assumptions vs. Reality

This goes against many long-held assumptions that women don’t want to work once they have families. This is simply not true. Many women don’t come back to their former employers after having children because they perceive that it is too difficult to do so – there is no support, a lack of flexible working opportunities, demotions for working less hours and the list goes on. 

I honestly thought that these industries had moved beyond this lack of support and development. It feels that each day I hear about a bank’s new initiative for attracting women back into the work force, or about a law firm that has developed a new platform for development in order to progress more females through the ranks, yet in reality, many women are still not getting the opportunities they deserve. 

How can employers retain their female talent?

During our event, we also talked about what employers can do to retain their female employees. I strongly believe that it’s time for businesses to stop talking about funky new initiatives, to stop hiding behind their benefits packages and to start looking at the real issues behind the lack of female talent in senior positions. 

Our survey results have indicated that many women are not getting supported and developed because senior management teams don’t treat women the same as men and when women do choose to have families, senior managers then devalue part time work or flexible working. 

The stigma behind this is still very real today and if we cannot figure out a way to change these antiquated ideas then we have not taken a single step forward in this dream of equality at work. I know this is easy to say and I know that any step forward is a positive one, but can’t we take a few more steps forward now?

At the end of the event we had a lively panel discussion covering topics from how you monitor performance when someone is working away from the office through to sharing ideas on how to engage more men in the fight for equality at work. 

As panelist Daniel Danso stated; "If it were up to women to fix this problem, it would have been fixed by now."

Thank you to our fabulous panelists, Adrian GuttridgeSarah-Jane Butler and Daniel Danso.

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