Why are women in the media still leaving jobs they love?

Nicola Kemp: Why are women in the media still leaving jobs they love?
Opinion: Career Leaders

Leaders risk being more concerned with protecting their office footprint than promoting and retaining female talent.

“I had to leave another job I love because I didn’t feel safe.”

These are the words of a bold, brilliant woman in our industry who has taken the agonising decision to leave a job she loves. A job that was making her ill.

Overwhelmed, overworked and undermined. Consumed not just with the desire to excel at her job, but to challenge the status quo of her workplace, she felt she had no choice but to leave. The financial risk of taking a leap of faith into the unknown became a safer path than being crushed by the weight of expectation and exhaustion.

For while the business press groans with the weight of features of women “dropping out” like amorphous lemmings, the truth is that women are still leaving jobs they love because they are not set up to succeed.

These women are neither passengers, nor lemmings. If half of all art is knowing when to stop, then calling time on a toxic career is the ultimate sign of strength. A crushing indictment of an industry at risk of adopting the language of change while simultaneously rolling back the hard won gains in flexible working made in the grip of the pandemic.

Yet the uncomfortable truth remains that some leaders in our industry are still more concerned with protecting their office footprint than retaining and promoting female talent.

Mind the compassion gap

The biggest, best, and brightest brands in media have been built on the care, compassion and unique creative energy of women. It was women who built me a bridge across the messy middle of my own career.  As the first person in my family to go to university, I never expected to succeed in the media industry. I never took any position for granted. Yet that gratitude all too often bled into self-doubt: Am I good enough? Is what I have to say worth listening to? Am I doing enough? I slipped into self-editing so much that I often lost sight of what it was I so urgently needed to say.

This challenge is particularly acute for the transition generation of leaders in the workplace. Women like Empire’s Terri White, who opened up with grit and generosity on her “very painful” decision to leave a job she loved after becoming a mother. White told the Media Voices podcast: “The reality is if I hadn’t had my baby, I would still be editing Empire now and that’s a hard pill for me to swallow because I think you don’t imagine that you would have to make that choice in this day and age.”

Although as an industry we have adopted the language of mental health and wellness, the truth is we remain extravagant in burning out female talent. A challenge which is particularly acute for Black women. Women we continue to praise for their “strength” all the while doing nothing to tangibly support, celebrate and elevate their work.

Nicola Kemp: Stop trying to fix the women

Now is the time to stop urging women to “take space” and instead actively make space for the women already doing the work. Rather than launching another initiative to garner a few column inches, be intentional in seeking out the women already doing the work. Do not request to “pick their brains”. Stop spending women’s time like water; pay them fairly for their time and expertise.

As the first “always on” generation in the workplace we also need to take greater accountability for our own personal boundaries and make better choices. Building ways of working which work for everyone demands humility and acceptance from leaders and employees alike that there are new friction points to navigate in the hybrid working world.

We will collectively fail to meet this moment if we continue to confuse the opinions of the powerful few with the intellectual rigour of established fact.  It is far easier to blame hybrid working for mediocre work than it is take a hard look at the working culture of companies in which women still can’t find peace or retain jobs they love.

People before process

For too long as an industry the media has been complicit in urging women to lean into structures and systems built to exclude them. Putting process before people is not just a pathway to media mediocrity; it fuels an environment in which in 2023 women are still leaving jobs they love. As an industry we need less shiny one-size fits all working patterns and more humility that we don’t have all the answers yet.

So, for women skirting on the edges of overwhelm, turn this sentence into a bridge over your own self-doubt. Look for leaders and organisations who expand your possibilities, instead of urging you to shrink yourself.

Expansive leaders like Suki Thompson, founder of business transformation company Let’s Reset, who this month launched Suki’s Steps, a charity walk and swim to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. Even as she faces the end of her cancer journey, she is investing her time and energy in making every moment count and raising vital funds for others.

“Rest, don’t quit” might be the post-Covid meme media leaders need, but if you can’t find peace in a job you love: leave.

Just don’t quit on yourself, life is viciously too short for that.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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