The chilling tale of female attrition: why some women leave male dominated workplaces

Through the course of our work at Rapid Context we speak with smart, motivated women from all walks of life about the ups and downs of their careers in male-dominated workplaces. Something that has come up regularly in such conversations is their struggle identifying and addressing behaviours that detract from workplace experiences, especially when those behaviours do not constitute overt harassment or discrimination. These troubling behaviours may be small, subtle things but they end up constituting a kind of unwelcoming or hostile ‘vibe’. While workplaces may reject or ignore the reality of this vibe, for researchers it is an accepted and well-studied phenomenon: say hello to the chilly climate.

Developed in reference to women in male dominated university faculties, the concept of the chilly climate for women has been around since the 1980s. It’s an idea that has stood the test of time, having been examined in many empirical studies over the years (see here, here and here for example).

Chilly climates are often the result of behaviours that potentially (though not always) occur without the knowledge of the instigator. They can manifest in actions that may seem harmless to those who aren’t experiencing them - things like a lack of or reduced eye contact with women, tendency to speak over the top of women in meetings, expectation that women will organise social events or do kitchen clean up, and so on. They can also manifest in larger, more systemic issues such as underutilisation of women’s skillsets in the workplace, salary inequities or unclear career pathways. What’s defining about the chilly climate phenomenon is not the acts themselves, which may even seem trivial and which likely differ between organisations, but rather “…a compounding of everyday practices which block women’s full participation.”

It’s not unusual for women in these kinds of environments not to speak out. They may not feel like there is something concrete to speak about – there was not necessarily an ‘event’ to point to, or a ‘rule’ broken. They may fear being labelled as someone who rocks the boat, or even as someone who is paranoid and imagining things. Longitudinal research tells us that the effects of a chilly climate are cumulative: over time the climate reduces self-confidence and can lead to feelings of isolation and intimidation. A common outcome is that women experiencing a chilly climate will end up leaving that environment.

If you’re an employer whose female staff are experiencing this climate, or who perhaps has a worryingly high female attrition rate, what should you do? Here are some ideas:

  1. Listen to your female employees: if they speak about this kind of climate in your workplace don’t dismiss it or explain it away. Instead, ask about how it’s impacting them and what they want to happen.

  2. Seek education and training: Inform yourself about implicit bias, unconscious bias and chilly climates – there are loads of papers and advice pieces on these issues. Start conversations with your managers about the kind of work environment you want and how to get there. Consider seeking workplace training around the issue.

  3. Change the context: Use an organisation such as Rapid Context to help you identify the issues and develop policies and processes to shift your workplace to an environment that retains women.

At Rapid Context we work with organisations to identify and address the underlying issues that impact employee retention through our Rapid Connect program. If you think you or your organisation would benefit from our program, please get in touch.

Michelle Irving is a senior consultant at Rapid Context. Her expertise is in qualitative research design, implementation and analysis, mixed method research and social media analysis. Highly skilled in translating research in to practice.


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