Three ways that you can own your resignation as a female leader 

Female leader businesswoman resigning from her job

By Victoria Lewis, CEO, Byrne Dean 

The high-profile resignations of two national female leaders in recent weeks have stirred up discussions around the intersection of leadership and gender in the modern working world.

On resigning from her position as First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said she had found the last few years “relentlessly hard”. On the other side of the globe, Jacinda Ardern cut her term short with “nothing left in the tank”. Both have pointed our attention back to a sad fact – female leaders are much more likely to experience burnout in their roles than their male counterparts. Or at least to admit to it.

To be clear, I support these women wholeheartedly in taking their own decision to resign when it was right for them – it’s a decision I see women struggle with on a regular basis. As part of my role as a workplace behaviour consultant, I run listening groups in a lot of City offices; always an interesting experience having spent many years working as a City employment lawyer. During a recent session with a global law firm, the female associates talked about how often they, and their female colleagues, thought about leaving.

Resigning is always a big decision and not one that many relish taking. As a female leader, your resignation might feel like it comes with baggage. Once you’ve made the decision and submitted your resignation formally, what can you do to own the career decision you’ve made?

Challenge the misconception that women can (or should) “have it all”

As pandemic lockdowns forced us into a new normal of remote work, there was a sense that this could help female leaders in the workplace. Especially for those who combine their work with caregiving roles, it felt like this could be the revolution in work-life balance so many had been waiting for.

However, these hopes have been dashed for too many female leaders. In some workplaces, a two-tiered system has emerged, whereby those that spend time in the office in front of the team benefit from a ‘presence premium’, excluding those working from home from bonding activities and boardroom-level discussions alike. In other cases, an assumption has crept in that women should be able to do two roles fully at the same time when working remotely – even though realistically, each one is a full-time job. For a multitude of reasons, many unexplained, the same simply isn’t expected of their male counterparts.

This challenge won’t be new to most women, whether they have been personally affected or not. Some decide it’s not worth it anymore. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do one job wholeheartedly and without having to split your focus. Choosing to be the best parent you can be, does not negate the successes that you have been able to achieve in the workplace.

Try to leave a “way forward” for those who come after you 

If we want to see the rate of female leadership resignations decline, then we need to see systemic change running through the entire career journey at critical points of the pipeline. Setting the stage for your own career is vital, and it rests on being able to have the right conversations at an early stage. Whilst this does require women “to lean in” – you simply can’t lean in if no one wants to hear you. Encouragingly, more organisations are investing in coaching and training options to help them know where to start and equip them with the tools to articulate their needs.

Change happens through conversations, and we need more women to not just stay in their roles, but to help change the system from the inside. It’s frankly draining to be “the poster girl” – men and women must open themselves up to these conversations. Women need male allies. Increasing female retention rates, reducing gender pay gaps and ending micro-aggressions of a sexist nature are not attacks on men. They are ways to make a system more balanced.  I do believe that the greatest responsibility rests with managers and leaders – to listen deeply, engage with purpose, and be honest about the challenges.

Know that self-awareness is a sign of strength 

From the denials made by recent male resignations on the global stage, it’s tempting to feel like their lack of self-awareness is an enviable quality. In my experience, female leaders are significantly more likely to have an internal locus of control, making them much harsher self-critics than their male counterparts. However, this is a secret strength.

Self-awareness is a difficult leadership talent to cultivate, one which is being increasingly acknowledged in a changing business environment which is now recognising the importance of authenticity and rejecting grandiose over-confidence. While you may never be able to own the whole of the narrative around your resignation – and it’s not your responsibility to do so – you can have the confidence to know in yourself that you can own your decision.

About the author

Victoria LewisVictoria is CEO of Byrne Dean and has successfully grown the team into the established global workplace behavioural training consultancy it is today. Victoria spent the first 15 years of her legal career as an Employment Lawyer at Simmons & Simmons. She moved to Byrne Dean in its infancy in 2005 as an Associate, became Head of Training in 2013 and CEO in 2016.

Victoria is known for her powerful, personal, practical and challenging facilitation style and is regularly asked to work with senior leadership teams and boards on culture change. Victoria leads the inclusion and diversity work across a range of sectors and applies the principles of emotional intelligence to help individuals understand their accountability and the impact of the things they say and do.

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