Mergers, management changes and unfriendly work-family practices were the main reasons behind women leaving the workforce today a new Melbourne Business School survey has found.

The survey of 44 bank workers in Australia found that despite the popular assumption that professional women 'opt out' of the workforce to focus on family - choosing to forgo top management aspirations to fulfill the traditional role of homemaker - it was unlikely to be the main reason for their departure. 

Many departures can be attributed to unfriendly and even discriminatory work practices that occur amid organisational change and masculine cultures, says Associate Professor Isabel Metz, from the Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne. 

This understanding suggests that companies might be able to retain professional women with policies and practices that better manage transitions due to organisational change - i.e. restructures - or personal change - i.e. maternity leave.

Associate Professor Metz survey found that only 11 per cent of those interviewed cited family responsibilities as the chief reason for leaving their organisation.  Nearly 85 per cent said they left due to organisational changes such as mergers, restructures, management changes or downsizing, and almost 63 per cent were offered financial incentives to leave in the form of redundancy or retrenchment packages.

Almost half (45%) of the interviewees abandoned plans to continue working for their organisation because of unfriendly work-family practices that didn't give them a fair opportunity to return or continue to work, such as a lack of part-time positions or expectations of very long work hours on an ongoing basis.  More than one quarter (27%) mentioned broken employment promises and legal obligations upon their return from maternity leave as a primary reason for their departure. 

Associate Professor Metz said changes needed to be better managed.

 Change is a pervasive and challenging part of organisational life, and many of the interviewees were disappointed with the way downsizings and retrenchments were handled.  If relatively commonplace practices or actions had occurred - such as support from a senior HR representative or the offer of real work alternatives had been provided - then many of those who had left would have stayed, she says.

It's apparent too many of our female managers and professionals continue to face workplace discrimination, which is often hidden under the guise of 'restructuring'.  While it's true many professional women with children make decisions about work based on their primary role as care-givers, managers and organisations need to realise that very often these decisions are greatly influenced by work factors.