We see promising changes in the number of female leaders both in South Africa and internationally, writes Donna Rachelson, co-founder, IgniteHer. But at the same time, women are leaving senior roles. Why?According to findings from the 2022 Women in Business Report published by Grant Thornton, there’s been an increase in the prevalence of women in senior management roles around the globe. The report provides important insights into the results of 10,000 mid-market organisational leaders spanning 29 global economies.

Its findings show that, since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption to workplace practices and regulations has actually benefited female employees and managers, making it easier for them to transition into leadership roles.

Based on Grant Thornton’s findings, the percentage of women in senior management roles increased to 32% in 2022 from 31% in 2021. Africa has been a trailblazer here, boasting more women in leadership positions in 2022 (40%).

South Africa has been no exception, seeing an increase of women in senior roles for CEO, CMO, HR director and partner.

Women quitting

Paradoxically we are also seeing a global increase in mass walkouts of women who are quitting their senior management and leadership roles. The phenomenon has been called “The Great Breakup” – a trivialising term indicative of the bias against working women.

While it’s easier for women to transition into leadership roles than before, they still face an array of challenges that make it difficult to remain there.

Reasons women leave 

According to the 2022 Women in the Workplace Report released by McKinsey, there are a variety of complex, intersecting reasons at play that consist of opportunity, recognition, microaggression and culture.

The “broken rung” continues to be a barrier preventing more women from being promoted to initial management and leadership roles. McKinsey found that for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level positions to management roles, only 87 women are promoted, and even fewer for women of colour, of whom only 82 are promoted.

As a result, there are still far fewer women than men in management positions available to be promoted to more senior C-suite level positions of leadership, the evidence of which is easy to see when one compares the percentage of female CEOs across all Fortune 500 companies at 8% to the 91% male CEOs. Let that sink in!

Women leaders put more effort than their male counterparts into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and the well-being of their teams and employees, something that translates into better financial performance, but these efforts are failing to be recognised. As a result, women leaders are often overworked and more likely to hit burnout and exhaustion, making them less likely to be selected for further promotions.

Women are more likely to be passed over for a promotion due to personal traits and having children, compared to men. They’re also twice as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior.

Black women are four times as likely as white women to hear people express surprise or even compliment them on their language skills and abilities. LGBTQ+ women report receiving more comments about their personal appearance or demeanor along with unsolicited suggestions of how they should change.

Many organisations also don’t offer the kind of culture that many female managers and leaders are looking to work in. DEI and mental health in the workplace are rated as being of greater importance to women in management and leadership and they are 1.5 times more likely than male leaders to leave a position if the work culture doesn’t value  DEI and employee well-being.

Hybrid and flexible work also remains a crucial component that female leaders seek out, allowing them a better work/life balance and freedom of choice between working remotely or on-site. Women leaders who can choose report lower levels of stress and burnout and higher workplace satisfaction levels.

Why we need women in leadership

When women are placed in senior management and leadership roles, companies and their employees thrive. There’s no need to debate this because research has proven this time and time again. In a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, it was found that employee job engagement and job performance scores were significantly higher under a female leader.

This is not to say that men have no place in leadership. The goal here isn’t to shut the door on men. It’s to ensure there’s more equal representation of both male and female leaders.

While there’s no doubt that great steps have been taken by many companies, particularly at the mid-tier level, to create more inclusive working practices and spaces for women in leadership roles, barriers to success do remain. This seems to particularly be the case at larger corporate and enterprise-level organisations where management is more layered.

It’s important to acknowledge that the workplace system has been passed down and inherited from previous generations. We must actively work together to dismantle the current status quo to make leadership more diverse, inclusive and accepting of both men and women.

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