We are the change

Toxic culture killing our female workforce

Culture and values clash is the main reason women quit corporate life!

Two thirds of those earning less, say they would not return even for more money…

Starting up my new venture, targeted at women who have left the corporate world to set up their own business, I decided to conduct research to discover more about this niche.

Why would someone leave the perceived security of a corporate job with a regular pay check, benefits and comradeship to step into the uncertain world of business ownership, especially in these troubled economic times?

The results of the survey of 300 women entrepreneurs, shows that the main reason they leave corporate jobs is that they are frustrated with the toxic culture; not with the glass ceiling as is widely believed. Almost a quarter of participants (23%) cite the culture and values clash as their main reason for leaving, while less than 1 per cent identify the glass ceiling.

Surprisingly, of the 68% of women who earn less than when they were in corporate employment, almost two thirds say they would not go back to corporate life even though they are unhappy with their current income level.
What is this toxic culture they are so desperate to leave?
The toxic culture is a combination of these elements that occur in business:

  • Politics
  • Poor leadership
  • Opaque decision making
  • Limited communication
  • Micromanagement
  • Values clash between the individual and the company

One survey participant commented, ‘There was a disconnect between my values and the corporate world’s values and another said, ‘I got tired of wasting time on political activity versus actually doing the job.’
At a certain stage in their lives, women realise that the traditional work in corporate environments doesn’t work for them any more. They are tired of putting up with the toxic culture and they start to disengage, valuing their time and autonomy above their salary and job. This is the catalyst for them to leave and set up their own enterprises. The women surveyed are not born entrepreneurs but rather women who stepped out of the corporate world for a career that would meet their needs on their terms.

Survey participant Trisha Proud of Partners in Solutions Ltd said,

After a hugely successful career I decided to leave and set up my own business because I was fed up and disappointed at people not ‘walking the talk’ when it came to managing people and truly honouring the values that they regularly spoke about, but didn’t necessarily live and breathe on a day-to-day basis. After six years of trading I have no regrets.

Even if they were offered more money to get a corporate job again, most of them would not accept, preferring control of their future, their time and their environment over the cash. As well as the 23% leaving because of the toxic culture, a further fifth (21%) of respondents left to gain more autonomy and control of their destiny.

When asked what they loved most about having their own business, 48% said they loved the freedom and flexibility. 30% cited the independence and being their own boss as their favourite element of having their own business. They have taken the bold steps to create an environment they love to work in and they take pleasure in being able to choose who they work with, or not. The sense of satisfaction and accomplishment shines through their responses as they realise that in many cases they have created their business from nothing.

Even though they love being self-employed, it isn’t always easy. The transition from employment can be challenging, with revenue and cash flow often erratic at the beginning. And in many cases they are unprepared for the sheer volume and variety of work encountered in running their own business. They may be very skilled in their area of business but it is the myriad of other demands on their time that they find challenging. Whether it is the legal approach, finances, IT or even managing their own diary, these are things that the women have traditionally relied on the large corporate framework to provide, and in many cases even taken for granted. There is no one at the end of their IT help line to fix the printer!

Transitioning from corporate to one’s own business can also be challenging at the level of identity. After many years of having a certain title, reliable salary, working for an esteemed company and perhaps having many staff, when this disappears it can be a shock. As suddenly, those external cues we used to judge our success and identified with are gone. The women then need to update their identity based on their values and refresh their criteria of success. In my experience, when women haven’t done this, they may view their entrepreneurial venture as a failure because they are still judging it on their old success criteria.

Even with all of the factors considered, most of the women I spoke to would not go back to corporate, even if they were paid more money. Once they have tasted the freedom, ignited their passion to make a difference and work on their terms, there is no going back to the toxic culture.

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  1. Valerie Eaton says

    Great article, Wendy.

    This resonates with me as someone who spent 20 years in the corporate world. By the time I left 4 years ago I was heartily fed up with the lies, back stabbing and office politics. I was desperate to do something that fitted in with my own values and although starting up and running your own business is challenging, I’ve learnt far more over the last 2.5 years than I ever did working in an office. I think you begin to realise what’s important to you and it isn’t just the pay cheque at the end of the month.

    1. wendy kerr says

      Hi Valerie,

      Your comment is a wonderful summation of how it is for those women who get fed up, and then decide to crossover. Their values and the environment they work in start to be more important than the status of the job or the money.
      How is you new business going?

  2. Valerie Eaton says

    Thanks, Wendy. It was hard work at first but this year it’s really started to take off – so fingers crossed!

    Best wishes,

  3. esli kiddies says

    Sometime in your career, you. Know. Its. Time to pursue other dreams, having put in your best for. Another

    1. Wendy Kerr says

      You’re right – sometimes you just have that deep knowing it is time to move on.

  4. Penny Hinton says

    this is a great article and like other comments, I can appreciate its sentiment. I was particularly interested in the comments about the much quoted “glass ceiling” not being a factor in many women’s decisions to leave corporate life. I’ve long thought it a red herring – women aren’t held back, they make a definite choice to select out of an environment that doesn’t work for them.

    Your article also was spot on about the adjustment and loss of identity that can accompany leaving the corporate world. It does take time to adapt and it’s not always plain sailing and as you say, it’s crucial to review how you define your success/failure: applying criteria from your corporate past isn’t always the best yardstick.

    I’ll be very interested to see how the next generation of working women tackle these issues. Having seen their mothers trying to “have it all” – will they think they can do better or decide not to even attempt corporate life and do the entrepreneurial route from scratch?

    thanks for such a thought provoking article and some fascinating comments.

    1. Wendy Kerr says

      Hi Penny

      Thank you for your comment. I love your remark about the glass ceiling being a red herring. I completely agree. I think it is a politically correct panacea to cover up the real reason women leave, i.e the toxic culture.

      If you watched the recent BBC 2 programme, Women at the Top with Hilary Devey, you will have found it was full of red herrings! Their answer to keeping women in organisations was flexible working and cheap child care – if only it was that easy!

      Your point about the next generation of women is wonderful. A few years ago I read an American book called “not my mother’s life” and this researched how the university graduates were making career choices based on lifestyle priorities, choosing companies that had a short hours work culture, family friendly policies and senior women in place. It was an interesting read.

  5. Natalie Johnson says

    What a wonderful article! So refreshing to read a piece that accurately describes what I – and many women colleagues and friends – have been feeling.

    I think, for some women (and not all), this often happens after the birth of a child, a marriage, illness, or another life-changing event. At these times we may feel that we are bold enough to make the life choices that our newly found perspective demands of us.

    Values change. But, as you say, realizing they have changed and adjusting your own expectations can be difficult too. Finding others who share your values and ethics is a real boost – so this post is a fabulous find for like-minded women – and men.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking piece.

    1. Wendy Kerr says

      Thanks Natalie for your comment.

      Your point about how those life changing events enable women to be bolder is spot on. We seem to be less tolerant of what we had put up with before and this fuels our decision to leave.

      The question I am now curious about, is what type of corporate environments do the women who leave then go on to create? I think I will look at this next year…..

      1. Natalie Johnson says

        Absolutely. I look forward to reading that very much.