6 Ways to Wake Up and Help Retain Working Women

We’ve got a crisis of competitiveness right under our noses, and heaven knows we’re not making enough progress to solve it. Period.

I’m talking about our inability as a collective workforce to retain women as they rise up the ranks in corporate America (or more appropriately as they don’t rise up the ranks). Here are the sobering facts: only 14% of executive suites in America are occupied by a female. Even in companies as broadly recognized as best-in-class for retaining women (companies like Abbott, Ernst & Young, or KPMG), only 23% of the top floor hosts top women.

So other than for the purposes of easing male guilt, is there really any reason to get serious about solving this?

You bet your company’s assets there is.

Research is irrefutably clear that the presence of women in the workforce improves productivity, innovation, team dynamics, decision-making processes, organization health and the bottom line. Research also indicates women are just better leaders. An extensive study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman indicates women scored better than men on 15 of 16 core leadership competencies as rated by their peers.

So, yeah, it’s kind of important we get this right.

Research and a robust passion for this topic illuminates six ways we can help make progress toward the critical issue of retaining women in the corporate ranks:

Ask Yourself: “Opted Out” or “Pushed Out”?

So I’m going to go right after it – the unconscious bias toward women in the workplace is undeniable, and perhaps no more obvious than in the case of mothers in the workforce. A Vanderbilt study showed women with Bachelor’s degrees from highly selective universities that were married with children were 20% less likely to work then women in the same group who did not have children.

Far too often the surrounding assumption is women such as these are choosing to opt out to focus on their families. But the reality is that many feel pushed out because they did not feel supported by their company, and felt they had no choice but to leave. We simply cannot allow “baby penalties” to pervade the workplace.

What follows lays out the ways we can help mothers (and women in general) in the workforce to be and feel better supported. But it starts with a gut check on whether we are fully embracing the status of “Mother”.

Fuel Flexibility

Sociologist Pamela Stone found 90% of women she interviewed in her research cited inflexible working conditions and long hours as the reasons they left their employers. Many tried to work part-time but found that “hours creep, marginalization, stigmatization, and career plateauing (or being passed over for promotion) made part-time work undesirable.”

Her research also found many inconsistencies between policies on flexibility and the actual application of those policies. And missing the chance to execute flexible work options in a well-thought-through manner means whiffing on the opportunity to fill a huge unmet need. A major “women in the workplace” survey showed “seventy-five percent of college-educated women aged thirty-five to sixty would rather have more free time in their lives than make more money at their jobs. In fact, 40 percent would even take a pay cut for more flexibility.” So review your workplace practices through a lens of flexibility and work-life balance and flex to what needs to change.

Flush Out Gender Bias

So there’s that bias word again. Beth Axelrod, head of HR at e-Bay, speaks to the importance of recognizing gender bias when it’s happening – to prevent unfairness in areas as critical as the promotion process. Says Axelrod, “Women might think, “I don’t advocate for myself as aggressively as men do.” “I don’t raise my hand for a job, because I trust my manager to put me forward if I’m a suitable candidate.” “I don’t hammer my manager to promote me, because that would be self-promoting—even though some of my male colleagues do that.” And, “I don’t speak up in meetings as much as many of my male colleagues.” Women want to know that the people processes for assessments, promotions, and job placements are fair and that those processes take note of subtle differences between the way men and women shepherd their careers.”  And by the way, assuming that these female behavioral tendencies equal a lack of ambition is a massively misplaced assumption.

Provide Clear, and Crucible, Career Opportunities

You probably didn’t need research to confirm this, but in fact research shows “employers are simply not providing mid-career women with the opportunities that would increase their likelihood of staying in the workforce”.  Perhaps more so than for any other strategy for improving female retention, providing pivotal career opportunities requires intentionality.

Dare to plan 2-3 assignments out. Even if you know things could change and no guarantees can be made that far in the future, just having the discussion can really help. Take a stand and be a champion to get talented women in jet fuel roles. Conduct proactive “stay interviews” instead of the dreaded, and too-late, exit interview. The key is to do clear, purposeful, energizing career mapping. This is particularly important to do well in advance of women entering and exiting their maternity leaves.

Have a “Role Model Action Plan”

I don’t care what you’re trying to accomplish in life, it’s much more difficult to get there when you can’t look to, and learn from, those who have gone before you. With so few female role models in the upper ranks, it becomes a vicious cycle – not enough women to help pull, not enough inspiration to help push.

So as leaders, we need to have a very intentional, long-term action plan for how we can place more female role models in visible, important positions. Hold your team and yourself accountable to achieving this goal – make it a success metric. Encourage formal and informal women’s networks to help facilitate “productive commiseration” and to provide exposure to those precious few role models. The important point here is to roll up your sleeves and get a plan to have role models in place. Now.

Champion Change for Family Friendly Benefits

For many readers of this article, you may not feel you are in a place to influence company policy on benefits. But that shouldn’t stop you from starting the conversation.  It’s important not to underestimate the impact such “base” subjects as benefits can have on female retention. For example, in Sweden, where children are provided a spot in a public preschool and parents are charged no more than 3 percent of their incomes for the care, 78 percent of mothers work (compared to the low 60’s in the US).

Again, while it may seem like impacting such policies is “not your square”, I have seen vivid examples in Fortune 500 behemoths where policy changes started with a passionate individual who put real tension on the issue.

I don’t have the market cornered on the know-how here. I’d love it if this piece fueled more conversation.

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