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Why are women are still leaving top organisations and jobs in their droves… and why don’t business leaders stop it from happening?

Back in 2005, just a couple of years after completing my MBA, my classmate Bianca sent a copy of Off-Ramps and On-Ramps (a Harvard Business Review article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce) to all the women in our cohort.  The article which highlights the large numbers of highly qualified women dropping out of mainstream careers was one of the catalysts for me starting sphinxx… or at least shocked me into some form of acknowledgement that the lack of women in senior ranks was a global and profound issue for business.

According to Hewlett and Luce, a survey of the class of 1981 at Stanford University shows that 57% of women graduates leave the workforce. Another survey of three graduating classes at Harvard Business School demonstrates that only 38% of women end up in full-time careers.

And Hewlett’s findings that women are defecting from “extreme jobs” (jobs that demand a high number of responsibilities, tight deadlines and long work weeks) in large numbers are as relevant today as they were five years ago.

A recent post in the Forbes CSR blog on The Immeasurable Value of Retaining Women in the Workplacereferencing the Offramps and Onramps piece highlights what we all know: that when women abandon careers in large and impressive organisations (that often espouse gender equity and diversity programs), everyone suffers.

It’s not good for women to feel they have no option but to leave, to walk away from careers built up over years, to resign through sheer frustration and the roadblocks of a blokey leadership team, with a decidedly blokey way of doing things that really wears down the small number of women over time.  It’s wrong for careers to be cast aside when policies won’t flex to meet the relatively short term needs of women for flexibility during child rearing years or elder care years.  And it’s not good for the women left behind who witness this.

It’s not appropriate for society to invest all the money we do – billions of dollars every year on educating women – when we don’t provide the mechanisms to enable women to achieve in the workforce as well as their Degrees.  The 3 per cent of CEO roles in Australia held by women is a dreadful return on investment for all the money we pour into educating our women.  If we’re not going to fix the workplace cultures that are holding women back then we might as well stop educating them altogether.

It’s not sustainable for business to watch all that investment in attracting and developing their most educated employees (in Australia’s tertiary institutions there are one third more female students than male), only to see them walk out the door with all their knowledge, experience and expertise and straight into the office of a competitor who “gets it” when it comes to providing the kind of workplaces women thrive in. Or into businesses of their own where they contract back to former employers at twice or three times their original salary.  Or start a business in competition altogether. 

It’s also not good for business to fail to have gender balance in leadership because we all know (well we, reading this blog, know) that women are the Chief Purchasing Officers of their households… so if their needs aren’t met they’ll go elsewhere (ie to a business that “gets” what women want, what they’ll value and what they’ll pay for – on their own behalf and everyone else in the household).  When organisations don’t have enough women in key decision making roles they end up making more risky decisions, produce less effective resultsand sometimes they misread their audience altogether and alienate their customers in the process.

It’s not good for managers to get away with failing so miserably on their employee engagement to the point that they can’t keep women, and for them to not be counseled on it and penalized for it.  No matter what business you’re in, if you wasted your most valuable resources (and how many times have we been told that “our people are our most important asset”) or just neglected company assets for anyone to help themselves to, you should be penalized for that, not given a promotion by default into the jobs that are left behind.

It’s not good for our children to grow up seeing women portrayed in the media as follower rather than leaders, and experiencing such a dearth of female role models showcasing the advantages that a feminine way of doing things can bring.  Qualities like having a global view, collaborating and working together to achieve outcomes, of pulling together when the going gets tough, are what I want my child to see in his leaders – not just the old model of “better, stronger, faster”.  It’s been acknowledged since time began that little girls and little boys benefit from having leadership role models of both genders in their family situation – so why should it be any different for leadership in the business context?

Yes, it’s the understatement of the new year to say that it’s a loss for everyone when women leave their careers… so the question is: what then are we going to do about it in 2011?

To start with I think you should forward this blog to your boss and all your male peers and ask them what they plan to do in 2011 to improve gender balance across your organisation.

You can then go on and ask your boss if you’re currently being paid equally to your male peers?  (no need to sugar coat it – simple language like this usually works best)

And finally, you can put your hand up more often in 2011: for more opportunities at work, for more help at home and for more recognition of what it is that you’re achieving every day.  Because I believe the news for women in business in 2011 is that more is more!

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