Corporate UK – Why Do Women Walk Away?

Corporate UK – Why Do Women Walk Away?

I am revisiting one of my pet subjects today – making corporate UK female friendly. I spend many hours in the company of awesome professional women every week and I am always amazed by their spirit and frustrated by their stories, simultaneously. I have been saying we need to stop fixing the women and start fixing the organisations for many years and still I see little shift in most company’s diversity strategies.
I listened with mixed emotions to a 25 year old female, working in publishing in London last week as she told me she had to go into her boss and demand a raise because she knew all the men in her office, doing the same job as her were paid atleast £7k a year more. She talked of the embarrassment of having to do this but recognised if she didn’t she would be failing ‘all women’. As a young feminist she talked about ‘taking one for the team.’
No doubt, most young women, well the ones with any aspirations, will enter corporate life excited, with the belief that equality is absolute.
But unless they join a structured graduate or intern programme their starting salary is likely to be less than their male colleagues and by middle management many of them will have disappeared as the journey upward becomes less and less attractive. Fuelled by endemic sexism, testosterone driven values and the clear message that military tenacity is demanded to even consider integrating the role of mother and executive. The choices simply become impossible to juggle.
At the heart of this phenomenon is the loss of female identity and the devaluing of motherhood.
Emily Davison staged her protest and many suffragettes endured horrific hardships to secure women the right to vote, to be heard, to have their say. At no point did any of them express the desire to behave, think or act like men! Equality was fought on the basis of difference, votes for women.
Since 2002 the number of women leaving the corporate sector has hit an all time high with many organisations losing up to 40% of their senior female talent and this trend is not set to change anytime soon. But are we tackling the real reasons for this exodus? Many of these women have since set up their own businesses or moved into freelance working so they are clearly more than competent and driven are they not? Being an entrepreneur not only allows some flexibility on hours worked but more importantly it is attractive to smart women as they can steer their own ship, name it, define it and lead by their own values. However, do not be fooled into believing that this is the easy option. Running your own business comes with a different set of challenges. Being your own boss is certainly NOT less hours, less stress or less brain power ,but it does allow you to stay true to self, lead from your feminine side without having to justify this and fit your work hours around motherhood. Maybe these benefits give us some insight into why women may be walking away from corporate UK?
Young women know the journey to the top is tough. They see few role models of women who have done it and done it with ease. They have working Mums, Aunts and Sisters who have gone before them and their stories are not always pretty! They know the decision to have a family will come up at some point and they know this may be a deal breaker for their career so many are asking ‘why bother?
The jury is out on the effectiveness of gender balanced boards but still we debate and debate and whilst we continue to debate this and women’s role in the workplace, the talent pipeline is drying up!
We need to acknowledge that testosterone fuelled environments, unworkable hours (not the quantity, the set patterns of 14 hour days in the office, the lush hour etc) and a blasé approach to risk are no longer valued nor prized in business today.
We need to shift from ambition to inspiration; sales to service and competition to collaboration, all truths easier to achieve with women on board. At the moment as women hit the top levels of middle management they have 3 choices –
1. Go native ie. behave like a man, become one of the boys, don’t rock the boat.
2. Continue to climb, attempting to influence/fight for right to be heard as a women. The downside of this is it often demands highly tuned skills and the ability to switch identities several times a day. It is emotionally exhausting.
3. Get out.
Whist I continue to salute and champion the women out there making a difference, If we are going to fix the talent leak we need to stop fixing the women and start fixing the organisations.


  1. janenobleknight

    Another insightful, pertinent post from Jane.

  2. Lynda Clarke

    Hi Jane

    very apt..I am just about to leave an organisation as I have become so frustrated at the arrogance of the management team and HR to ‘fix things’ would really be happy to do a piece on this

    Lynda 07971182338

    1. janekenyon

      HI Lynda
      thanks for comment and offer. I do not use guest blogging but send me a short piece and I will include in next piece I write about this subject. x

  3. Wendy Maycraft

    Couldn’t agree more Jane. Some years ago I was promoted to a post where the outgoing incumbent regularly worked 12 hours a day plus weekends. I had a young family and was not prepared to do the same – how then to avoid looking incompetent following someone who was putting 60+ hours a week into the job??
    My youngest daughter has just joined a large multi-national and is currently falling into the Choice 1 (ie go native) category – she’s happy (for now) to work and play hard, and is ambitious and driven. But I worry about her longer-term future, when she’s maybe thinking about a family and her priorities shift…………so hard to juggle both effectively without risking physical and emotional burnout.

  4. Jennie johnson

    Macho culture re working hours is a huge problem…as a CEO I want my team to work really hard and do an exceptional job, but I also want them to have a good home life…it is a balance I try to set an example with myself, I don’t work macho hours….but I do struggle to not stay connected..(ipad, emails out of hours etc) which is a bit of the same issue I suppose? Every now and again, senior people have to stay late to respond to an issue, but if this becomes a daily occurrence, in my view, your business model is flawed and you will end up its pissed off staff rather then colleagues that do a fab job and will be there for you, unconditionally when the *hit hits the fan….

    1. janekenyon

      well said Jennie!

  5. Leigh Lafever-Ayer

    Good article Jane! As a working mum in a senior role, I have to really love what I am doing every day at work to be away from my family. Luckily, I found an organisation that I can identify with the values. It is not always easy though; you have to know what your ‘non-negotiables’ are in order to achieve balance.

    1. janekenyon

      that’s the key Leigh – gotta be able to have a sense of shared values. Without this work sabotages our identity. Thanks for comments.


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