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Unsurprisingly, a new study has revealed it’s harder for a woman to reach a senior leadership role than a man, and once they’re there, it’s more likely that they’ll leave.

The report from and McKinsey & Company found that women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate ever and the gap between women and men in senior roles quitting their jobs is the largest it’s ever been since it started tracking these numbers in 2015.

To put the scale of the problem in perspective: for every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two women directors are choosing to leave their company.

As the report makes plain there is a substantial ‘broken rung’ on the leadership ladder – the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, only 87 women are promoted. As a result, men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, and women can never catch up.

The research reveals it’s not that women don’t want to work or hold these roles, it’s that they’re not getting the support they need from employers, to be successful and avoid burnout.

A glimpse into some of the reasons why women leaders are departing corporate life at such an unprecedented rate was revealed this week in the details of executive recruiter, Anna Whitlam’s claim against Teneo Global, as reported by industry news service, Shortlist.

In August 2021 Whitlam sold her search and advisory business, Anna Whitlam People, to global consulting firm, Teneo, and as part of the sale was appointed to the position of Head of APAC Talent Advisory, based in Australia, with responsibility across the Asia-Pacific region.

In July this year Whitlam was summarily dismissed from Teneo for alleged misconduct and is now suing the firm in the Federal Court for unlawful adverse action and contract breaches,

Amongst the claims outlined in the Shortlist article ($ subscriber link), Whitlam alleges she

  • often started work as early as 6am and would finish anywhere between 11 pm and 3 am, and that she was regularly required to work weekends and attend late-night online meetings with overseas colleagues.
  • was told she was no longer part of the global management committee (GMC) after having emailed the chair of Teneo International, two months into her tenure, seeking a “more inclusive approach” to (GMC) meetings, to cater to different time zones
  • raised concerns with the chair about her unreasonable work hours, his lack of communication about budget targets, a lack of IT understanding and support, and the lack of recognition she had received for her achievements.
  • complained to the chair that the workplace culture was “male dominated and not inclusive of women”, he became irritated with her and blamed her for the high turnover of staff, she claims.
  • raised concerns with Teneo’s chief people officer about the “unsustainable” and “toxic” culture driven by revenue pressure, lack of resources and support, and a lack of inclusivity.
  • was excluded from the planning of an offsite leadership meeting after again complaining to the chair about culture and staff turnover,

According to the Teneo Global website, their current global management committee comprises ten men and two women.

Whitlam’s claims echo those outlined by the former CEO of Harrier Human Capital (now Harrier Talent Solutions), Kelly Quirk (now Reynolds), in her 2020 court action taken against Harrier’s Chairman, David Sourbutts, after Quick was fired in May 2020 for allegedly misusing her corporate credit card for personal expenses, a claim she denied.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported that Quirk alleged Sourbutts;

  • told her that she was being paid a substantial salary and to “just get on with it” after she raised concerns about her workload which resulted in her, in the first nine months of 2018, taking 63 national flights and spending 103 nights away from home
  • did not answer her complaints about “an unsafe and unhealthy working environment due to her unreasonable workload”
  • failed to support her over concerns of “utter exhaustion” from working at least 70 hours a week since 2018,
  • bullied her by unilaterally deducting her pay,
  • told her to hide details of cash flow problems from the board,
  • posted security guards outside her office to prevent her coming in due to mental health problems
  • required her to get a medical certificate asserting she was mentally fit to attend work and to indemnify him from future claims over her health condition.

Harrier’s board said an internal investigation determined that her complaints were either matters within her full control or were not substantiated with evidence and, as a result, they denied all the allegations made in Quick’s claim as well as those contained with the AFR article.

The result of Quirk’s adverse action claim against Courbutts is unknown.

According to Courbutt’s Linkedin profile, he concluded his tenure as Harrier’s chair in June this year.

The experience of both Whitlam and Quirk provides an insight into what “lack of support” looks like for many senior female leaders.

No doubt many women on the receiving end of similar treatment leave their employer before things go from bad to worse or decide it’s too stressful, expensive, and risky to pursue a claim through the courts.

As the LeanIn/McKinsey report concludes:

Women are ambitious and hardworking. They’re more inclusive and empathetic leaders. And they want to work for companies that are prioritizing the cultural changes that are improving work: flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Companies that rise to the moment will attract and retain women leaders—and this will lead to a better workplace for everyone. They’ll win the war for talent today and into the future.

Postscript (2 November 2023):  Quirk (now Reyolds) failed in her adverse action claim against her former employer in the Federal Circuit Court, after Judge Allyson Ladhams released her verdict last week, as reported by industry news service Shortlist ($ subscriber access). Judge Ladhams assessed the actions of Harrier Chair David Soubutts in firing Reynolds for alleged misuse of her company credit card as justifiable and ruled against Reynolds’ claim that she was fired for complaining about bullying and an unsafe work environment. During Harrier’s investigation, it was discovered that Reynolds had requested AMEX points accrued on a company credit card be transferred to her personal Qantas frequent flyer account however she had continued to fly business class at the company’s expense without using these points. She had also used AMEX rewards to redeem 11 $100 Freedom Furniture vouchers for her personal use. Despite Reynolds’ claim that she had repaid the personal expenses, the judge ruled that her conduct nonetheless breached her employment contract, seriously risked Harrier Group’s reputation and viability and, therefore, justified summary dismissal.

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