The Million Dollar Question: Why do talented women leave their jobs?

In a week when Saatchi & Saatchi’s chairman Kevin Roberts resigned after comments that women in the advertising industry lack ambition and are not held back by sexism, Astrid van Waveren considers why women leave their jobs.

If you heard someone say, ‘Women value having children over their careers,’ you would probably be shocked. Yet, if a man and a woman, both aged thirty, quit their jobs, the stock assumption remains: The man leaves for a greater challenge, or a higher salary. The woman leaves because she wants to start a family.

Vast sums of money are invested into trying to understand the poor retention rate of talented female millennials. Yet, many individuals are still making the assumption: Women want babies.

Of course, some women do, but motherhood is not the deciding factor where career choice is concerned. As the ICEDR survey made clear in 2014: “Women around age 30 rank pay, lack of learning and development, and a shortage of meaningful work as the primary reasons why they leave organisations.” A yearning for a child does not even make the top three.

The assumption that women leave their jobs to have babies is the hangover of an opinion we no longer accept. The belief that women prioritise ‘work-life balance’ over career challenges is an easy excuse for lack of progress. When we ask the right questions, the excuse disappears.

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial survey, “Women are relatively more focused on working culture, whereas men were more focused on products and performance – women place greater emphasis on flexible working opportunities and the ability to derive a sense of meaning from their work.”

 Note, the word ‘opportunities’. Flexibility may be helpful for working mothers, but that’s not its sole value. As these statistics show, the common ground between women isn’t potential motherhood, but a shared value. Women want meaningful work.

 Women are motivated by progression and leadership opportunities to the same degree as men, but organisations are not offering talented female millennials such rewards. According to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, ‘67% of Gen Y women are likely to leave their employers within the next five years. One reason could be that 48% of female respondents say they are “being overlooked for potential leadership positions” and women are equally likely as men to rate “opportunities for career progression and leadership roles” as a major factor for staying at or leaving a job.’(Deloitte Millennial Survey, 2016)

When female workers are asked directly about their values, the take-away is loud and clear.

We have to focus on building a culture that supports women’s leadership potential; one based on evidence, rather than executive assumptions. If we think creatively about how to ensure that women are offered opportunities to develop their skills and tackle challenges, then the question of whether women want babies becomes irrelevant. A man will not stay in an under-paid, unsatisfying job because his employers offer to build a creche in the office. Neither will a woman.

*Astrid van Waveren is Head of Online Coaching of Talking Talent, an innovative coaching consultancy which aims to develop and maximise the female talent pipeline.


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