Corporate Politics and Toxic Environments Are the Real Reasons Women Are 'Leaning Out'
Corporations complain there is not enough talent, even as they ignore work environments that drive away women in their career prime.
It is no secret that women are demanding more from their professional lives -- challenge, meaning and growth opportunities are usually at the top of the list. Given that many employers are failing to create a fulfilling path and culture for most employees (close to 70 percent of employees are disengaged with their work), it’s no surprise that many are simply opting out of the corporate track. Over the past nine years, the number of women-owned businesses has grown at a rate five times faster than the national average, yet it is not for the reasons most think.
A recent Harvard Business Review article, citing a global study conducted by the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR), pointed to the finding that “leaders believe that a majority of women around the age of 30 leave because they are struggling to balance work and life or planning to have children, whereas men leave because of compensation.” However, the article countered that “the primary factor influencing their [women’s] decision to leave their organizations is pay.” I would argue that neither work/life balance nor compensation is the primary driver, but rather it’s the corporate environment itself that is the problem.
In an effort to get to the root cause of the issue, we posed this question to our 400-plus Hera Hub members. “What was the primary reason you left your job to start your business?” While work/life balance played a role for some, there were two more important drivers in the decision to “lean out,” an entrepreneurial concept I explored in Flight Club.
Reason 1: They are fed up with corporate politics.
The top reason our members cite for leaving their job was corporate politics, along with mismatch of values and toxic environment. Janeal Ford, founder of Fordable Freelance, shared one of her favorite quotes: "Culture eats strategy for lunch every day." This is the essence of the frustration many employees feel. Ford grew weary of corporate leaders agreeing that changes were needed, but when efforts were made to effectuate those changes, they would end up waylaid by the egos of leaders or sabotaged by the traditions and habits that corporate organizations hold dear. She launched her own business to advance initiatives and projects for the charities she loves without needing to tiptoe around institutional politics.
Within corporate politics is also where employees often find themselves attempting to dodge multiple stray bullets, one in which they feel that their ethics and values often do not match those of the corporation. Women often find themselves burned out as they try to make a meaningful contribution to the business mission, while at the same time work to have their voices and opinions matter.
Reason 2: They wanted to make a difference.
The second reason members cited was impact. They wanted to fulfill their purpose and make a difference. No matter what the profession is, it is fair to say most of us wish to contribute to making the world a better place. We want to leave a legacy of intelligent accomplishment, of good, solid work, and of recognized achievements. Certified Senior Advisor (CSA) Karen Van Dyke, owner of Senior Care by Design, described it simply as, “I didn’t feel like my work was making a difference. I was tired of filling out spreadsheets with 100 rows down and 50 columns across with data that no one ever looked at. Now I have a direct impact on important life decisions for my clients and I bring joy and peace into their family. No brainer.”
Women especially feel as if their voices and opinions are lost in the corporate noise. They are building someone else’s dream, without any consideration or recognition of their contributions to that dream. Some women want to see their own ideas come to life; creating something that may not have existed before, something that often helps others. Or they may choose to simply continue their line of work independently, so they are in command of their own visions, goals, business culture, and ultimately, their own profitability.
What’s important to recognize is less than a third of participants cited freedom and flexibility -- doing it on their own terms and balance of work/family/life. Women, more than men, are impressed upon to bear the burden of balancing work and home life or quality of life. Working for a corporation puts them at the mercy of that organization’s time restraints and professional expectations. Women end up feeling stretched so thin with time, it’s a wonder they aren’t transparent.
Asako Okuma Svolopoulos, a San Diego-based financial education entrepreneur and senior marketing director within Revolution Financial Management, voiced her frustration. “I was fed up with having my boss dictate how soon and how many days I can see my family in Japan. Plus, even if I asked, she could say no, which she did often. I love my profession, and I love to help people but I can't keep serving others at the sacrifice of my life's quality. I had to take that back!"
One more reason: They feel undervalued.
The final most common reason cited was lack of ability to contribute -- feeling undervalued, underutilized and not able to reach their potential. The corporate world does not always fully recognize women’s contributions, nor does not create a hospitable climate for women to succeed at the highest levels, whether it’s gender discrimination, family-unfriendly policies that punish women who choose to take time off to care for children, or just an overall culture that only rewards those who “lean in.” When faced with this type of an employment environment, a step towards their “lean out” then becomes an important life goal.
Carmen Chavez de Hesse, an experienced business developer and founder of Echo Growth Strategies, shared her "lean out" story. "The day I recognized I was, in fact, a powerhouse of knowledge in my field and felt that I could do it on my own. I felt undervalued and underpaid for years. The worst was that on one occasion, I overheard my boss tell a colleague that he had 'us' with his golden handcuffs. There were numerous (many documented) unfulfilled promises, such as shared equity in new ventures, etc. In the end, I left with nothing. Last year was my best earnings to date. So, there is no doubt in my mind that I’m on the right track.”
Time and time again, when it comes right down to it, and we are honest with ourselves, it becomes clear that no amount of financial compensation will negate the feelings of inadequacy, of not being heard, of having your time stretched so thin you almost feel transparent, and of lacking the life connections that feed your soul, whether those connections come in the form of spending time with your family, or participating in hobbies and community. Women “lean out” because they are tired of fighting the old corporate structures. In an increasingly tight job market, companies would have greater success retaining talent if they look within to address and improve the issues of corporate politics, and the mismatch of values that become so toxic they chase away some of their best people.