By Fatima Koning, Group Chief Commercial Officer at International Workplace Group.
For women in the workplace, it is 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 Stats SA shows that female employment is on the rise. In SA, the labour force participation rate for women during Q2 2022 was 53% as compared to the same period in 2021 when the rate amounted to 46.21%, a jump of nearly 7% – and not factoring in the second half of 2022 and the beginning of 2023.
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. In light of International Women’s Day, this is an opportunity to recognise the progress made in terms of women’s rights and to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done to make the workplace a more inclusive and sustainable place for all women.
Setting the scene
Put simply; most companies cannot afford to lose female leadership. They do not have enough of this 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 with more CEOs named Peter than women CEOs. Lean In and McKinsey’s study points to the same problem. It found that only one in four C-Suite leaders is a woman, while just one in twenty 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 company. This matters in principle because business diversity drives success, promotes productivity, and helps establish a healthy company culture.
As a female leader of diverse teams in 120 markets worldwide, I have learned how companies can turn the ‘great break up’ into great make-up.
Women want work-life balance
Firstly, 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. It makes a vital difference in my life: I am 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 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’ post-pandemic, but women seem especially reluctant. The Women in the Workplace report makes clear that young women are highly ambitious but not prepared to sacrifice their well-being to advance at work. International Workplace Group’s (IWG) data paints a similar picture, with 72% of people saying they would 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 attracting fresh female talent. With it, businesses can 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. 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, female colleagues seem more likely to undertake unpaid, undervalued office ‘housework’ such as watering plants, tidying communal areas and ensuring 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. Throughout my time at IWG, I’ve benefited hugely from the mentorship of Mark Dixon, who’s always been a strong advocate and ally. With my teams, I regularly challenge the cultural norms and social conditioning that can hold women back. Perfectionism is a perfect example: women are 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 incredibly liberating for women.
Organisations considering what people and women need in terms of motivation, encouragement and confidence building will find it worthwhile.
Making hybrid work
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 is 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 the burden of a long commute. Major corporations such as Standard Chartered Bank and NTT have partnered with IWG to do just that, giving their people access to 3 500 locations worldwide.
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 and 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. My experience as a mentee and leader shows that everyone wins when employers support women’s success.