How to crush female talent

This article describes a true story about a woman in a professional firm and the challenges that she faced. It is a perfect case study for those who wish to ensure that no woman in their business ever stays to reach the lofty heights of leadership.

A female candidate was interviewed by a regional professional services firm. The candidate was looking for a new role outside of the city, which would challenge her in new ways. She was an excellent adviser but wanted the chance to try something different.

The firm was delighted to meet her as she was top in her field and had an excellent pedigree – she could really add to their offering and her appointment was aligned to the firm’s strategy. Following her first interview, she was invited back for a second meeting with two female partners. Both female partners had young children and worked part-time. The meeting was spent discussing the flexibility that the firm had to offer, the ability to come in late and leave early, the ability to work part-time and the lack of stress involved in the job. What they didn’t realise is that they had completely misunderstood the reasons why she was looking for a change.

That evening the candidate called the agency and politely declined the opportunity. It was not what she wanted from a firm – she was looking for a challenge, a place where her expertise could be tested and progress her career; not somewhere where they would make assumptions about her working life. Not deterred, the firm called her directly and asked her to meet the firm’s management team. Her ambitious nature was intrigued by this and she agreed to attend. After a rigorous meeting, she was motivated by the opportunity and decided to accept the offer to join.

A year into the role she had her first appraisal. It was a positive message; she was doing well, building a practice and was liked and respected by her colleagues. She was asked if she wanted to work part-time because it had been noted that she was working quite long hours. Women in other departments apparently had arrangements that meant they could leave early to pick up their children from school. She had that familiar feeling of not being listened to or understood by the firm. She actually enjoyed the challenge of the role and the hours that came with it so the lady declined this kind offer and left her appraisal demotivated.

In a meeting a few weeks later, a client asked the lady why she had left her previous firm and chosen the current employer. Before she could answer, her boss replied that she had made a lifestyle choice and that the firm treats its women brilliantly in that it doesn’t really require the same level of commitment as it requires from its men, allowing women to maintain a healthy home/work balance. The client expressed concern that his case may not be given the right level of attention and ultimately the lady is moved from the case to smaller pieces of work, which are not quite so time pressured.

The woman sticks it out and a year later becomes pregnant. She is delighted and meets her line manager to inform him that she will of course take maternity leave but intends to return to work full-time after six months. Having made her announcement, her line manager says that he is devastated because she is a real asset and asks her opinion as to when they should look for her replacement. Happy news turns quickly into a heated debate about why a replacement isn’t required and the line manager expressing his view that she will never return – “they never do”.

Exasperated, this young, talented and highly professional lady goes on maternity leave and does not return. Five years later she is the CEO of a competitor having found an organisation that understands.

Obviously, if you want to keep your talent – do the opposite! Don’t make assumptions, listen to your employees and work with them to understand their ambitions.

Victoria Brackett is managing partner Thomas Eggar LLP

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