The challenge of retaining amazing women at their mid career point – how to plug the leaky pipeline and deepen the talent pool of potential female leaders.
The business case for wanting more women in senior positions is well documented and clear – organisations with more female leaders produce better financial results*. Another economic consideration is that companies buying in products and services are setting gender as one of their criteria for the selection process and in terms of differentiating themselves, companies that become known as a ‘women friendly’ organisation will attract the best women to work for them.
Lord Davis’s 2011 report calls for 25% of board positions to be filled by women by 2015 and The 30% Club has set the bar even higher and sees increasing board diversity to at least 30% as the key to driving profitable growth.
There have been many studies with recommendations about how to achieve a greater female presence in the boardroom, how to enable women to compete on a level playing field with men at times of promotion. Suggestions range from what women can do to help themselves – to build their confidence and gravitas, to go for career enhancing ‘stretch jobs’, to network with key influencers and getting a mentor or sponsor to be their champion. Work is also being done to overcome indigenous organisational blocks to female promotion, such as eliminating unconscious gender bias in the promotion process. However there is an assumption here, and that is, that a big enough pool of future women leaders exists and that it’s just that the route to leadership is blocked by innate female traits holding women back or by an ingrained organisational glass ceiling.
This article challenges this assumption since significant attrition levels of women at the mid career level means that the talent pool of potential female leaders is too shallow and there are simply not enough high calibre female candidates available for promotion. I see the solution to getting more women on the board as not just a case of unblocking the pipeline, but stopping the leak of potential leaders in the first place.
At graduate level, organisations recognize the value of women and recruit talented, promising young women equally alongside men, often at a ratio of 50:50 and in some instances even higher. Having successfully created an early pipeline of female leaders, why then do organisations seemingly not want to protect their investment, nurture their women and continue to harness the best available talent for their leadership? Imagine what difference it would make to the bottom line if companies leveraged 100% of their best people, not just 50%.
There are three steps to gender equality in the workplace, Recruitment, Retention, Promotion. At one end, gender equality at the Recruitment stage is being achieved and at the other end, strategies are beginning to be put in place to support women that are ready for promotion and to develop them to become leaders. The gap to be addressed is the challenge of Retention and this is where positive policies and interventions need to be put in place.
What can organisations do to stem female attrition and ensure they have a bigger pool of women to promote from?
Best Practice to boost retention levels should include:
• Make gender diversity a business objective in the organisation’s development strategy. The executive leadership team needs to be committed to improving retention levels, sponsor retention efforts and hold itself accountable for the results.
• Make diversity and retention part of a manager’s performance appraisal.
• Look at equality metrics and measure/record/publish retention statistics and the percentage of men and women at each grade.
• Review existing flexible working policies and introduce new and creative ways of working.
• Ensure flexible working practices are explicit, transparent and available to all (men and women).
• Know and accept what flexible working solutions look like in practice so that the stigma of part time working or working from home is removed.
• Ensure technology is fully utilised to allow remote working.
• Explore internal childcare and eldercare initiatives that provide practical support, information and solutions, e.g. on-site nurseries, access to emergency backup care, seminars and advice on relevant issues.
• Make coaching and/or workshops available to women early on in their career. Topics would include confidence, resilience, career planning, networking, work/family mix.
• Introduce a maternity coaching programme.
• Have a mentoring or buddying scheme for female returners after a career break and/or in-house groups e.g. Asda’s “Now we’re back” group.
• Reshape the female road to promotion; a woman’s career path may not be linear and will be different from a man’s. Establish alternative career paths and a route to achieving it.
• Have a way of keeping women engaged during a career break including cpd and an alumnae network to ensure professional knowledge, confidence and networks are maintained.
• Look at how a woman’s performance is assessed. Are assessment procedures standardised, objective and consistent? Is quality rather than quantity of work rewarded? Do output and results count rather than just number of hours worked?
• Introduce a formal mentoring programme for all women.
• Look at existing female role models. What image do they project and what support do they give younger women? Some senior women have been accused of pulling up the ladder beneath them.
• Allow women to be women. Capitalise on female strengths and traits and their EQ, do not expect them to act like a man.
• Understand the strengths, motivations and expectations of Generation Y women.
It is in a company’s interest to implement initiatives to retain their talented women. If women are supported to keep their careers on track whilst raising a family, then at the very least companies will not waste their significant investment in their talented female graduates. Additionally, they retain the womens’ valuable professional skills and client relationships, and they will have a larger pool of women to promote from for management positions. This will enable them to meet their gender diversity targets and with more women at board level, this should generate even better company results and provide a pipeline of female mentors for the future. Furthermore women who have been nurtured and valued during their mid-career years will be engaged, loyal, conscientious and become inspiring leaders in the future.
*Sources: Companies with three or more women board directors achieve return on equity 45% higher than the average company (The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards, Catalyst 2011), Share prices of Companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed those with men-only boards by 26% over a 6 year period (PA Consulting Group analysis of public results of 50 US and UK companies from 2007-2012).