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International Women’s Day

Food for Thought

The “Exodus of Senior Women” should concern us all, and here’s why…..

On the 21 Feb published an article headed “It’s a huge concern”: Senior-level women are calling it quits after decades climbing the career ladder.  The preceding week YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that she was leaving the company to “start a new chapter focussed on my family, health and personal projects I am passionate about”, Jacinda Ardern announced in January 2023 that she was stepping down from the role as PM of New Zealand in January, and there are plenty of other examples.

This trend has been worrying me for a while.  It’s not just high-profile senior women – and I won’t pretend that it was any of those examples that first prompted my unease.  I’ve noticed the trend much closer to home.  Executive women contacting me for advice and assistance exiting after spending decades getting to “the top” only to spend a few years there and stand down.  Corporate clients asking for assistance in managing amicable exits where women executives feel that the pressures of the role are too much and need to dilute responsibilities to meet other demands on their time. Friends and acquaintances quitting “corporate” London and reinventing themselves in careers I would never have seen coming.  I rather took the view that if my anecdotal evidence wasn’t enough for me to notice a trend, Jacinda Ardern stepping down saying she “no longer had enough in the tank” to do the job certainly cemented it.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t get the attraction, I suspect many of us have thought it. I know I have.  It doesn’t mean we are not committed, just drained.  Women my age are probably the first generation where it’s the rule rather than the exception for both partners to work and for households and families to rely on two incomes. As a result, the juggle of outside pressures are intensified, and wow does it seem that women are feeling the burn!  Many of us are now raising teens (no mean feat), juggling complex demanding careers, managing menopause, worrying about care for older relatives and still doing enormous amounts of the heavy lifting at home.  Add to that the micro-aggressions that women are still subject to in the workplace, the fact that duties supporting office culture often fall to (or are taken up by) women, that more women take on roles relating to inclusion and mentoring on top of their existing executive duties, and you can see why many senior women simply “no long have enough in the tank”.

It’s (sweeping generalisation alert) mostly not executive men taking the calls from NHS services or the school, nagging the recalcitrant teen about homework, organising clubs, tutors and school holiday cover, panicking about school pick up, keeping food in the house and clothes on peoples backs.  Yes, many couples share tasks so much more evenly than a generation ago – but equally there will be many instances where men in executive roles just don’t have the same additional pressures and can dedicate more of themselves, mentally and physically, to getting to and staying at the top of the career ladder.

A few years ago, I attended an event hosted by a financial services institution bragging about their equality credentials and opportunities for women.  Afterwards I asked the speaker (a man) a simple question, deliberately timed to catch him a little off guard.  “Who does your Ocado shop?” He immediately came back with “my wife” (and didn’t look as sheepish as he should have done)! And therein lies so much of the problem.  We are a generation of women fighting thousands of years of “me provider”, “you cook, keep house, raise children” – and expecting thousands of years of biological coding to be re-written almost overnight (at least in evolutionary terms).  Yes, change is happening (thankfully) and society is certainly moving in the right direction in terms of equality for everyone, but we need to be mindful and encourage it to keep moving in that direction – and ever more quickly.  The trend (and according to data from McKinsey and Company as well as others it is a trend) for women executives to exit the workforce, is a concern.  This “quitting gap” (some report it being as high as for every one woman stepping up into an executive role, two are stepping down). should concern us all, and here’s why….

Part of me thinks – good on you.  A chance to reinvent after years at the coal face, often juggling career and kids?  Who wouldn’t want that option if it was available.  However, I think we should all be worrying about what the exodus (possibly a little dramatic – but you get the idea) means for businesses and the women within them.  Put simply without proportionate and appropriate representation at the top, businesses make decisions which don’t properly take into account the needs of those that don’t form part of the decision-making profile.  In this case without women at the top, in the room and in a position of influence, I firmly believe businesses will fail to make decisions that take account of the needs of women employers and workers.  Not in all areas or all the time, but in some ways and some of the time – and that is enough to be a significant problem and move in entirely the wrong direction.

I suppose the question is what can we do about it?  It’s not legislation, that’s already there.  At the risk of being shouted down (not something a man would automatically write in the way I have just done I’m sure), I think men in executive roles need to step up.  The need to step up in the workplace and outside, to ensure that the burden is spread more evenly and the risk of women who have spent decades honing their skills and working to get to the top want to (and that’s the important bit) remain in situ.  And, as for us women, we need to remember to stop apologising (note to self), to say “no” to additional office housekeeping as we climb the ladder, to encourage a more even spread of duties supporting workplace culture.  We need to not pick up the coffee jug and pour in meetings, and to continue to speak out for the support we need to continue to thrive.  Women didn’t gain equality without being vocal – and change will only accelerate if we encourage it.

Article by Adele Martins, Partner and Head of Employment



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