Why Women Join (and Leave) Companies – Barriers to Gender Equality in the Workplace by Abigail Komu

Categories : Blog


Author: Abigail Komu

In 2021, I began leading the Gender Equality Changemakers community of practice in Kenya on behalf of the Digital Frontiers Institute. Over the last two years, I have had the privilege of speaking with several gender equality changemakers actively working to advance gender equity in their unique ways. One of the issues that has consistently arisen in our conversations is why women join the workplace, stay in the workplace, and leave. I began exploring this question by asking women about the factors they perceive as most important in these decisions. Many were varied, but some of the most common include:

  • Unequal pay: The gender pay gap[1] is a global problem. In 2023, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023 found that the global gender pay gap is 23%. This means that women earn an average of seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man earns. Women must still work extra to earn the same amount of money as men in a year. The gender pay gap is widest in Africa, where women earn an average of sixty-one cents for every dollar men earn, and the lowest in North America[2]. They estimate that it will take one hundred and thirty years[3] to close the global gender gap at the current rate of progress. Women continue to work longer hours and take on more unpaid work to make the same amount of money as men. As a result, there is a lifetime of income inequality between men and women, and more women are retiring into poverty. This gender pay gap is a significant barrier to women’s economic empowerment and can make it difficult for women to support themselves and their families.

Image: UN Women, Wage Gap

  • Unsupportive work environments: Violence against women in the workplace is a pervasive problem that affects women of all ages, backgrounds and income levels. It can take many forms, including sexual harassment, sexual assault and physical violence. This violence can have a devastating impact on women’s physical and mental health, their careers, and their lives overall. Based on a World Bank study[4] of 173 countries; 114 of these countries had laws or provisions to address violence against women in the workplace. These laws are often not enforced or practical due to factors like inadequate awareness, underreporting due to fear of reprisal or societal stigma, and insufficient support from employers, families, and the justice system, particularly in regions where a culture of silence around sexual violence persists.

Image: UN Women

  • Lack of opportunities for advancement: Women are underrepresented in leadership positions in public and private sectors worldwide. According to a report by Grant Thornton[5], globally, women held 29% of senior management roles in 2021. This is an increase from 27% in 2020, which is still significantly lower than the global target of 30% by 2025. The report also found a significant variation in the number of women in senior management across different regions. In North America, women held 35% of senior management roles in 2021, while in Europe, they held 28% of roles. In Africa, women held only 19% of senior management roles in 2021. Women are significantly underrepresented in these important decision-making positions. Several factors contribute to this underrepresentation, including gender stereotypes, few role models, work-life balance challenges and unconscious bias. This lack of opportunities for advancement can make it difficult for women to feel valued and respected in the workplace. Some women leave their jobs because they feel stuck in dead-end positions and see no opportunities to move up.

Image: UN Women

  • Work-life balance issues: Globally, women are often responsible for most unpaid care work, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. According to a 2019 study by the World Bank, women spend an average of 25 hours per week on unpaid care work, compared to ten hours for men. This means that women spend twice as much time as men on unpaid care work, which can significantly impact their lives. The study also found a significant variation in how much time women spend on unpaid care work across different regions. In Europe, women spend an average of 20 hours per week on unpaid care work, compared to eight hours for men. In Asia, women spend an average of 23 hours per week on unpaid care work, compared to ten hours for men. In Africa, women spend an average of 29 hours per week on unpaid care work, compared to 11 hours for men. This is due to several factors including cultural norms, economic constraints and lack of access to childcare services. For instance, cultural norms in Africa dictate that women are responsible for the household and childcare. This is often seen as a woman’s “natural” role and it can be difficult for women to break away from these expectations. These factors make it difficult for women to escape unpaid care work. It can limit their opportunities for education and employment and contribute to stress and burnout. It can also make it difficult for women to participate in public life.

Image: UN Women

  • Discriminatory legal practices: Many legal barriers still prevent women from fully participating in the economy. These barriers include laws restricting women’s ability to own property, start businesses and work in specific industries. Organisations such as CEDAW[6] specifically call on countries to remove discrimination against women in their legislation for women to realise their economic potential. When women have the same rights and opportunities as men, they are more likely to be able to get an education, get a job, and earn a fair wage. They are also more likely to be able to participate in decision-making and contribute to the economy.

Image: UN Women

Stress and burnout: Workplace stress impacts the physical and mental health of female leaders. A report from Deloitte[7] found that women experience dangerously high levels of burnout, with 53% of respondents reporting that their stress levels are higher than a year ago. Almost half of the women surveyed said they feel exhausted, and nearly 40% of those looking for new jobs cited burnout as the main reason. The report also found that women are more likely than men to experience burnout in all regions of the world. In Africa, for example, 62% of women reported feeling burned out compared to 48% of men. Factors contributing to burnout in female leaders include unrealistic expectations, lack of support and poor work-life balance.

The impact of women leaving the workplace is significant. Businesses lose out on the talent and skills of women, and the economy needs to improve. In addition, the lack of women in leadership positions can lead to poor decision-making and a lack of diversity of thought. Some organisations are working to address the challenges women face in the workplace. These organisations are putting policies and practices in place that help women to stay in the workplace, such as:

  • Paying women equally: Organisations should pay women the same as men for the same work, regardless of geography. This will help to close the gender pay gap and make it easier for women to support themselves and their families and feel valued for the work that they do.
  • Creating opportunities for advancement: Organisations should create more opportunities for women to advance in their careers. This can be done by providing training and development programs, mentoring opportunities, and flexible work arrangements.
  • Creating a supportive work environment: Organisations should create a work environment free from discrimination and harassment. This will make it a more welcoming and productive environment for all employees.
  • Supporting work-life balance: Organisations should provide flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting and flexitime. This will help women to balance their work and personal responsibilities.
  • Implementing supportive laws: For women to realise their economic potential, countries must remove discrimination against women in their legislation. These will ensure that in organisations, women have the same rights and opportunities as men in all areas of life, including education, employment, and healthcare. It also means addressing the root causes of discrimination, such as gender stereotypes and violence against women.

The statistics on women leaving the workplace are worrying. If we do not help women stay in the workplace, we will see more dropping out. This will affect the quality of leadership, the quality of products and services that will come out, and the overall economy. We need to take action to address the challenges women face in the workplace, creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace for all.


[1]   The World Economic Forum defines the gender pay gap as “the difference between women’s and men’s earnings, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings.” It is calculated by comparing the median hourly earnings of men and women who are employed full-time.

[2]   World Economic Forum. (2021). The Global Gender Gap Report 2021. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2021

[3]   World Economic Forum. (2021). The Global Gender Gap Report 2021. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2021

[4]     World Bank. (2022). Women, Business, and the Law 2022. Washington, DC: World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/36945

[5]     Grant Thornton (2022). Women in business 2022: A window of opportunity. Retrieved from https://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights/women-in-business-2022/

[6] The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a women’s human rights treaty that obliges countries to take concrete measures for the advancement of women in public and private life.

[7] McKinsey & Company. (2023, January 10). Women in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace#/


By  Abigail Komu 

Founder & Digital Financial Services Specialist at Mosi Africa Advisory

Digital Frontiers Alumni and GEC COP facilitator


Established in 2015, Digital Frontiers Institute is a proud brand of Digital Frontiers. Learn more about the Gender Equality Changemakers (GEC) programme and find out how to enrol: https://genderequality.digitalfrontiersinstitute.org/