The workplace is slowly transitioning to an employee-oriented world, where retaining the best and the brightest means a brutal top-down management style and toxic work environment just don’t cut it anymore.

It’s this new awareness and desire for something better, or just different, that’s triggered a trend of more women switching jobs or leaving the workplace entirely. It seems that the pandemic put women under a particular kind of pressure that has made them say, “enough” -- and not just those in the C-suite.

A McKinsey Women in the Workplace report from last fall said: “Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen, and ambitious young women are prepared to do the same.” Reasons include the feeling of not being valued or recognized for their work, being viewed as a junior while working at a senior level job, and not being considered as capable as a man. Considering women were already greatly underrepresented in leadership roles in the workplace, it’s a disturbing phenomenon for the corporate world. Workplaces clearly need to adapt to the new world, or risk becoming relics. 

The McKinsey report cited one reason women step away to be because they seek a different workplace culture. Young women want opportunities to advance; they want more flexibility and an employer that is committed to employee well being. Anna Wray, Vice President of Colliers’ Victoria brokerage, says she's seen a shift first-hand in what younger employees expect from both work and their personal lives.

“It’s not just about getting a paycheque for them anymore,” says Wray. “They really want fulfillment, they really want their job to have meaning, and that’s a lot different from my parents’ generation and even my generation. It’s not just the work, but what is that work? How do you feel about it? Does it inter mingle with your life and does it allow you and afford you the opportunity to have a robust personal life as well?”

For Wray, she didn’t have to leave the real estate world to find that balance, but rather found it in the commercial sphere. The flexibility of being able to work at home and work in a commission job, without the 9 to 5 structure, enables her to spend time with her kids. But because she isn’t in residential real estate, she doesn’t have to spend all her evenings and weekends working.

Commercial real estate is still a male-dominated industry, and the sales profession has always had that hyper-masculine Glengarry Glen Ross cutthroat image to it, but that doesn’t mean women have to try to fit that mould. At Wray's office, four out of the 16 brokers are women. The profession still has a way to go to get to equal representation, but Wray says she’s in discussions with senior management about how to get there. 

“In commercial real estate, there is a great opportunity to make a lot of money and some people have done extremely well, so there is a lot of wealth and money—and often some ego that comes with it, and I think that was something I had to learn to navigate in being a broker, and being a women in the business. Do I have to be that person to be successful?” says Wray, who played rugby at the national level before beginning her real estate career. She started off as a brokerage assistant in Vancouver before working her way up to being a broker, with the help of some work mentors. She has now been a broker for 11 years.

“It takes some time to figure out how to play in the sandbox, but it’s okay that I play my way and I don’t have to play the way someone else does. I’m taking my own approach. I can still work with the men and still be as successful the men, but I don’t have to be like them. I’m not naturally an egotistical person, so I don’t have to put on that façade, or play that game in that way to find success for myself, personally and professionally.”

Andrea Gunraj, Vice President, Public Engagement for The Canadian Women’s Foundation, said they’re hearing many of stories about women stepping away from work to do something else, like starting their own businesses, or doing unpaid work such as caring for a parent. Part of the problem is being less valued, reflected in the 89 cents a woman earns for every dollar a man earns. And the gap is worse for women of colour and those with disabilities. 

“They are leaving organizations or going to other paid work that feeds them and recognizes their humanity,” says Gunraj. “[We are] seeing younger women who are saying, ‘I’m not going to kill myself doing work that is not going to fill me and give me nothing as a human being. I want to contribute to my community and there are other ways of doing this.’ And I think that is a very fair argument."

Even for women who don't have the freedom or financial stability to step away from a job, Gunraj says they are now asking more questions. Others are making the decision to work for themselves.

"Entrepreneurship for women was always high, but now we are seeing a spike," says Gunraj. "So you are seeing that social purpose approach to entrepreneurship, for women and particularly women of colour, women who are Indigenous. We are always thinking about these things."

Toronto-based Ferial Sheybani has built an enviable career in tech, working in various sectors in IT, including her job as Senior Director of IT at SNC-Lavalin, before moving to Colliers Canada as Vice President of Technology and Data.  Generally, she’s seeing different trends happening according to the demographics, and it’s the younger women who are having a tougher time. 

“That is where there is opportunity to create a better environment and allow these brilliant women to not get drowned in trying to find a work-life balance," says Sheybani. "And there’s this concept that most women try to be perfect in everything they do, and if they feel that in this area they are not perfect, they feel they are failing. And that is a big weight on their shoulders and that is one of the reasons they are signing off, or saying, ‘It’s too much work. I cannot possibly see my self doing it [perfectly].’ Definitely, there is that is going on.”

Sheybani supports a team that includes a lot of women, and she’s comfortable being a leader, giving talks and offering support. She says she was fortunate, having a family that supported her problem-solving mind, and her love of science. Having lived in other countries, she’s found that in North America, women too often tell themselves a story that they are not good at math and are conditioned to give up.

Instead, she says they should push themselves, take risks. When Colliers recruited Sheybani, she didn’t know anything about commercial real estate, but she knew she could apply her knowledge the way she had in other industries.

“I have taken risks. I have been comfortable with the uncomfortable,” says Sheybani. “Usually the way women tackle a problem is a different approach and we bring some level of compassion to the problem solving, and I think we need that, in a society.

“At the same time, we have to watch not becoming too soft, sitting to the side, waiting to be asked. We have to keep pushing ourselves to get out there. And you've got to be a ladder for other women, otherwise it’s going to get very lonely.”