Why do young women leave their jobs?
Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, seeks answers to the questions around why women exit the legal profession in the 20s and 30s.
Mike Cook was the CEO of Deloitte & Touche in the early 1990s. His firm – for around a decade – had been hiring equal numbers of men and women. Only 10% of partner candidates at the firm, however, were female. Cook couldn’t understand this so he convened a task force to investigate.
What the task force found was interesting. More than 70% of the women who had left his firm were still employed full-time a year later. Fewer than 1 in 10 were out of the workforce caring for their children. Most of the employees leaving Deloitte didn’t pause or finish their career. They simply went elsewhere.
Recent research by Harvard Business School professors found that only 11% of women? out of the workforce are doing so to care for children full time. The Deloitte investigation showed that only a small number of women chose to leave role to devote themselves to motherhood and the Harvard Business School research showed that only a small number of women leave the workforce entirely to devote themselves to motherhood. So why do they leave?
Mike Cook was looking under the bonnet of his organisation 20 years ago. The Harvard Business School professors focused on HBS graduates. The question is: are Scottish solicitors different?
The situation in Scotland
Our own research – Profile of the Profession – suggests not. Anecdotally, when I’m out and about amongst the profession, I often hear that organisations (and sometimes the profession) lose women in their 20s and 30s.
The usual answer echoes the received wisdom: ‘it’s the babies, stupid’.
It isn’t about the babies, so to speak, but rather flexibility. That research noted ‘there appears to be a steady/increasing flow of female practitioners out of private practice and into in-house roles. This was considered to be largely driven by the inflexibility of working patterns, excessive overtime, and the detrimental effect that maternity leave and part-time working can have on a person’s career within private practice. That research suggests women aren’t leaving the profession. It suggests they are leaving private practice.
As well as this, there is an increasing flow out of the profession to other careers. This seems odd. Many lawyers always wanted to be lawyers. It is something that from a young age, deep in their bones, they just knew they wanted to be. Many desperately wanted a traineeship with a given firm.
Why then – within a decade of starting out as a lawyer – are so many female lawyers changing careers? Or if they are staying in the profession, why are they leaving the organisations that have trained them? For some it might be that the reality didn’t live up to the hype. For some it might be motherhood. For many others the answer likely lies elsewhere.
The benefits of being flexible
Our Profile of the Profession would suggest the more flexible employers can be, and the more accommodating of career breaks, the more likely they are to attract and retain female talent (in particular).
New research suggests flexibility is only part of the answer. A recent International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR) study showed that according to millennial women themselves, the biggest single reason they leave an organisation - and to a greater degree than men - is pay. (NB: we are increasingly a ‘millennial’ profession. Not including trainees, 32% of the profession are millennial or under 35). It may seem obvious but if you want to keep them, pay them more.
For most couples the decision about who stays at home is fundamentally financial. If one person’s position pays more – and statistically that is usually the case for women – then the decision is that the other person will stay at home/go part-time.
Increasingly this isn’t about whose role it is to stay at home and whose role it is to go out to work but rather it comes down to finance. The gender pay gap across the economy and assumptions about caregiving obligations aren’t two separate issues facing women: they are two sides of the same coin. It is unsurprising then that women are more likely to leave a role because the pay is better elsewhere.
What else causes women to leave a role?
After those leaving for compensation, the second and third most common reasons given for leaving were because the organisation didn’t offer meaningful learning and development, and because there was a shortage of interesting and challenging work. Fourth was pay again (e.g. they didn’t think their remuneration was fair).
Starting a family was the 5th most cited reason for changing careers. That isn’t to say that flexible working isn’t important, but it isn’t a silver bullet to ensure you retain female talent. It will be interesting to see in the next profile of the profession if this is shown in the profession.
How do you keep them?
If you want to keep millennial women working for you – and given their preponderance in the sector, you do – then as well as flexible working, the latest research suggests there are three ways to make that happen.
1. Pay them more
2. Give them opportunities to learn in the workplace or
3. Give them opportunities to undertake some form of meaningful structured learning linked to career development (what that is, and what interesting and challenging work is, will differ from person to person and from role to role).
It seems that the cast iron way to ensure millennial women will leave your organisation is to assume that they will.
Talent is the lifeblood of any organisation. Trainees and NQs are the future of your organisation. It is difficult to justify a leaky pipeline where people you’ve trained – who could be the future leaders of your organisation – leave so early in their careers.
Strategies for talent retention
So what to do? Millennial men and millennial women tend to leave roles for the same sorts of reasons: develop talent retention strategies that aren’t gender specific.
Don’t assume women want to become mothers and if they are mothers, don’t assume they want fewer hours or responsibilities. For those who do choose to become parents, more guidance on getting return to work right can be found on our website.
A next step is to undertake an equal pay audit. Are you paying fairly across the board? A good rule of thumb here is: if you were to accidentally email the entire office a spreadsheet of everyone’s salary, would you be able to look everyone in the face afterwards?
You might also want to copy Mike Cook: look at the women who have left your organisation. Are they working as a solicitor? Have they left the profession to a better remunerated job?
Look at how many women leave your organisation within two years of returning from maternity leave. How many of them are working for a competitor? Remuneration isn’t just about current pay– it is about maternity pay, bonuses and potential future remuneration too.
Looking forward to the next 10 years
The legal profession is increasingly female and increasingly millennial. These trends will only intensify. The issue over the next decade will not be attracting female talent but retaining it. Organisations that understand this and who reward their female lawyers well, who promote them on equal terms, who invest in their learning and development, and who give them interesting work, will thrive.
None of this should be surprising. If a bright, ambitious, qualified professional isn’t remunerated well, isn’t given interesting work, is less likely to be promoted, and isn’t given opportunities to learn, the question shouldn’t be why do they leave but, rather, why do they stay?