BY JENNIFER REYNOLDS
Jennifer Reynolds is President of Women in Capital Markets, a director on the board of Studio 180, a not-for-profit, independent, Toronto-based theater company, as well as Director and Chair of Microskills Business Incubator.
I recently held a lecture for an Executive MBA class and challenged the group to think about why we don’t have more female leaders in Fortune 500 companies. Before I let the class assume that women are leaving for “personal reasons,” ie, children or better work life balance, I put up a slide that showed the top reasons women leave leadership roles in Fortune 500 companies. At the very bottom of the list, and the least statistically significant, was “work life balance.” The top reasons: not feeling valued in the workplace, feeling excluded from teams and decisions, male-dominated environment, and lack of opportunity for advancement.
Some of the students were surprised to hear this, but after my lecture, a woman approached me and pointed to the slide behind me. “That is exactly it,” she said. “That’s why I’m going to leave the bank I work for.”
Having spent 15 years working in the Canadian capital markets, I have witnessed this time and time again. Women who appear to have conquered the hardest part of their career, rising from entry level into middle- and then senior-management roles while balancing childbearing years and young children, decide to leave the industry.
Women holding senior positions at large corporations quit at twice the rate of men; but when women leave corporations, they’re not opting out of business careers — they are migrating to companies with environments that value their talents or skills, or starting their own businesses. (In Canada women retain ownership in 47% of small and medium-sized businesses.)
Shortly after teaching that MBA class, I had lunch with another senior executive who had just left her position at a Canadian bank after moving up through the ranks over 20 years. Why leave now? “At a certain point you realize that despite your accomplishments, you’re not in that group that is being considered and groomed for the senior leadership,” she told me. “Somewhere along the way, someone made an assumption that you weren’t capable of leading or that you didn’t want to lead. You know that no matter how often you deliver results or how many hours you put in, you are not going to be able to change that perception.” This woman moved on to start her own successful financial services business.
Women just aren’t on the radar screen of most corporations when they look for the next generation of leaders. The informal networks of mentorship, coaching and sponsorship aren’t developing organically for women despite better representation at junior and mid-levels. As a result, they gradually become more isolated and less “valued” from a professional, social and monetary perspective the more senior they become.
I asked the woman from that MBA class if she had discussed her perceptions of her value and potential with her boss or other senior management in the firm. She said “I wouldn’t feel comfortable having that discussion, anyways it wouldn’t change anything.” I have felt that way at several points in my career. Returning from my second maternity leave, I was discussing my career goals with a senior executive and he stopped mid-sentence to say “Why would you want to do this job?” Instead of addressing the issue of his conscious or unconscious bias, I explained all the reasons I enjoyed investment banking. I ignored the real question, which was “Can you really be an investment banker and a mother?”
The idea of starting the dialogue is uncomfortable. The odds of generating change or reorienting someone’s perceptions seem low. But if we don’t start those difficult conversations, we miss the chance to manage our careers, to ask for the opportunity to work on the big deal, to challenge the assumption that we don’t want to travel, or to make the case for why we should be paid the same, if not more, than the men in the room.
However inconvenient it may be to introduce a different perspective, that challenge is exactly how diversity leads us to the best decisions and performance – from organizations and from individuals.