You’re losing your best women: Here’s why?

Recently it was announced that UK boards have stalled on the recruitment of female directors. The rate at which women are being promoted to the boards of the UK’s largest companies has slowed for the first time and is it any wonder?

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The pipeline of talent still has several leaks that aren’t going to fix themselves, especially around the shifting roles of parents and authentic, feminine leadership.

The findings from research by headhunter Egon Zehnder come as fears grow that the momentum to get more women into senior business roles has lost its oomph. The proponents of workplace diversity and inclusion that I am speaking to remain passionate about diversity at board level but are under increasing pressure as budgets are squeezed and managers stay focused on shorter-term profits and results. In our fast-moving world it can be hard to think longer-term.

“A modern organisation is only as successful as its leadership’s ability to navigate a near-constant state of change and the momentum for achieving gender parity is simply not occurring at the pace of progress required,”

Rajeev Vasudeva, chief executive of Egon Zehnder.

A candid conversation with the MD of a high performing, seven day a week global business revealed he is struggling to retain his female talent because he finds it hard to understand their needs. Despite the business investing heavily four women were recently let go and replaced by four men.

“All our investments in women were in vain including the time spent. The financial damage was considerable.“

A recent new mother decided not to return despite the business holding her role open for 12 months, being offered more money and a promotion. There are several issues contributing to the slowdown but here are three that I see constantly.

One: Businesses don’t know how to manage the maternity journey to make it inclusive and beneficial for all. 

Despite millions being invested in maternity coaching programs many companies still don’t work with women early enough (before they’ve conceived would be ideal, during the first trimester otherwise) to help them see the transition in a positive light or involve fathers, managers or colleagues in the process – even though it affects them all.

The women I work with learn to see their journey as a personal and professional growth opportunity and discover the leadership skills, which make them a more valuable asset to business on their return but often managers and teams just feel like they are picking up the slack and not seeing the bigger picture.

Two: Women aren’t challenged to think deeply about what they want in the long-term or empowered to speak up and ask for more. 

Considering her return a second time mum with 10+ years experience had an informal conversation with her boss and mooted the idea of returning to her four day post on three days initially. The idea was instantly rejected and he stated the role was now “really five days…” Overwhelmed she came to me saying she thought it best to leave and pick up something locally that could be more flexible.

As her coaching calls progressed she reconnected to her passion for the senior role she was doing before her first child arrived and she was moved sideways to her current more administrative position. She realised she was willing to work five days but in a position that valued her complete set of skills, remunerated her fairly and gave her a clear line of career progression. She is about to start negotiations to return on this basis but she could’ve as easily taken another route which ultimately she didn’t want.

Three: We all have biases and need to be willing to confront them. 

Many in business don’t understand the conflicting emotions and vulnerability even the highest flying new mother will experience and are woefully prepared to negotiate a sustainable and career advancing return; assuming ambition if not lost altogether, is on hold. If they do possess the required levels of empathy men often take on a patriarchal role and inadvertently tap into a new mothers conflict around her worth, her place in society and obligations to her child. (These are deep-rooted beliefs, which take time to uncover hence why building a relationship and starting sooner rather than later is recommended).

Well-meaning and caring HR departments trying to reassure a new mother there is “no rush” to discuss her return can come across as dismissive of the planning and thought-process a new mother has to go through in order to come back successfully. This also gives many women the impression that they are no longer required. It’s a complex process and the reason why many women running on lack of sleep and emotionally charged will throw in the towel or accept a role that is beneath their general skills and capabilities as there is currently no fight in them only to leave after a fairly short term as they are unfulfilled.

Should you be planning a baby or managing or supporting others who are attend our specialist workshop with Voice at the Table on How to avoid the mistakes men, women and business are making that stop mothers becoming great leaders.

About the author

Lisa Barnwell has over 15 years experience working with more than 2000 women and their corporations through the pregnancy journey and transition to motherhood. She is the Founder of Bumps and the Boardroom and leading the campaign “Changing 100,000 Lives” which aims to positively change the maternity journey of 100,000 women and girls by 2020. @Bumpsnbabyguru @BumpsHQ Facebook:

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