I have made no secret of the fact that after my burnout I continued in my corporate career and that is where I thought I would stay, until, three months after two operations in 48 hours, I heard myself say for the very first time that I wanted to start my own company.
Never had I ever imagined that this was a path I would take. Firstly, I had no real idea what I would do, secondly I knew nothing about starting a business, and thirdly, my dreams of the super large global role that I would be able to take on once my sons were finished school was the thing that had kept me in my employed senior role.
Within three months, I had left my six-figure salary, created a business that was aligned to my values and started to really focus on the change that needed to be made in the world of work. And seven and a half years later, I am still here and growing from strength to strength.
Women need more options:
Recent research carried out by Deloitte in their Women@Work report and the more recent report published by McKinsey in its Women in the Workplace report states that one in three women are either stepping away from their corporate roles or stepping down into a different role as a result of burnout.
A few months into the pandemic, this figure was one in four and a year previous this figure was one in five. This is going to be a problem for the world of big business where it seems to be difficult for senior teams to grasp the value of having more women in senior roles.
We know that organisations with more women on the board outperform those that do not, and yet with so many women wanting to leave or step down, not only does this impact the women in these roles, but their companies and their performance too.
Through my coaching with senior professional women this is a constant quandary. Do they stay, feeling unfulfilled, burned out, exhausted and missing time with their families, or do they leave, and start up something for themselves? Something that gives them purpose and balance and energy and fulfilment?
Even when they are starting a business women are disadvantaged:
Starting a business is not easy. Keeping a business growing and thriving even less so. And with research showing that European companies with female-only founders receive less than one per cent of all VC capital investment despite the number of female-led companies almost doubling over the past decade - as reported by Yoppie - it seems that not only are women feeling forced to leave their corporate roles, but they are also significantly less likely to receive investment than their male counterparts.
In 2019, I was recommended by the Institute of Directors (IOD) to participate in a funding panel for businesses in my local LEP (local enterprise partnership). It was a Dragons' Den type panel, without the comfy chairs and TV cameras, and the paperwork had already been submitted and shortlisted. The shortlisted companies would pitch, based on their submission to receive the funding outlined in their application.
I was deemed more "harsh" in my scoring than many others on the panel even though I thought I was fair. It was not until I was later asked to then become a member of the Business Board, that I realised a lot of the shortlisted submissions, were in fact, also members of the Business Board, and all male.
I had asked throughout the process how companies had been made aware of the funding in the first place, to be told that all local business owners had been notified repeatedly via email.
As a business owner in the local area I had heard nothing and received nothing, and at the time, as my first business was growing, some investment to help with our systems development would have been ideal.
I was not on the list and I contacted many other local business owners in my network to ask them if they had been notified about the funding. None had and we were all women.
I started my company from ground zero. The pace at which I had left my job and started my company, having spent everything on a house just beforehand, meant I started with no financial cushion. And I had never approached anyone for money, loan or funding, and yet, as I learned through the pandemic, many of my peers had applied for and been granted funding of some kind since the inception of their businesses.
What was I missing? Where were people getting this information? Why was this information not as visible to me as it was some of my peers?
In late 2020, I was one of 100 featured women in the NatWest awards for women in business and at one of our Zoom updates, the 100 of us were told about the NatWest report talking about funding opportunities for women in business and what needed to be done to increase funding for women in business. At last progress!
And yet what all of these reports clearly show is that somehow, women are still being left behind whether we are in work or starting out on our own.
What is the answer?
Firstly, we have to tackle burnout. We have to make changes so that women are not burning out at a higher rate than men. And this change has to come from two directions, the workplace and women themselves.
The workplace needs to more inclusive. It needs to tackle the "token" woman and recruit us, develop us and listen to us as happens to the men in the room. Leaders need to stop ignoring the ideas of women unless they are spoken by a man. Leaders need to stop seeing flexible working patterns as a weakness. They need to stop thinking that the appearance of women is more important than our message. And the "difficult" women, need to be seen and encouraged just like the "strong" male leaders.
A quick aside:
I met with a very good friend of mine a couple of weeks ago. She is a finance genius, works for a large financial services company and a couple of years took a role in projects reporting to a strong female leader. Within a few months, the strong female leader was seen as difficult, bossy, unable to listen and not providing the right solutions. She was replaced. By a man.
A man walks into meetings and gets into the middle of conversations, gives solutions that people may not like but that are right, and stands his ground. He is well respected, he is listened to, his "no messing around" attitude is admired and highly regarded. My friend stated the only difference between her two bosses are gender.
The workplace still needs to change significantly. And if leaders can see that women will flex to juggle more responsibilities at home and at work to help eliminate burnout, they must also too, allow us to be more entrepreneurial in our role.
Allow more space to test and experiment, to produce work that has a purpose and alignment with something bigger.
What do women need to do?
As for us as women, we need better boundaries. We need to believe in ourselves. We need to live and lead with integrity and we need to keep standing our ground.
We cannot do this, disappointingly, without allies and leaders that listen. Because for many of us, we are already doing all of these things and still reaching burnout because we are being ignored, pushed out and stabbed in the back in our workplaces. I know this to be true for me and many, many of my clients and the data is saying the same.
And whether women to choose to stay in the workplace or start out on their own, we need support, we need development, we need to be heard and we need the same financial opportunities as our male colleagues, be it through equal pay or equal access to and the receiving of funding.
And it needs to start now.
Women need more choices than to step out or step down. We need to be able to grow and flourish and to thrive not survive.
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