Recently, I had a discussion about the advancement of women with the senior partner of a major law firm. Frustrated with the leaky pipeline of women in his organization, he described hiring equal numbers of men and women but found the turnover rate for female associates to be three to four times that of the males. Rather than throwing up his hands in dismay while watching his training investment walk out the door, there are things he can do to retain women employees.
First, he has to appreciate that women are not "mini-me" men. They are different, and therein lies their value. Instead of expecting women to assimilate, he must create a gender-inclusive workplace where women feel they truly belong. Male-dominated environments are full of gender bias, making it difficult for women to bring their authentic selves to work each day. Stifling oneself is draining, so eventually these women tire and move on.
For example, even if a woman is the senior person in a meeting, the guys will expect her to take the notes, and when it is over they will pack up, leaving her to clean up the coffee cups. Interestingly, the men doing this don't think they are biased, they aren't even conscious that it is happening. The good news is that bias can be changed, occurring most quickly under the guidance of an enlightened leader who sets an example.
The small-steps approach is the most successful strategy. Big, sweeping changes are difficult, if not impossible. A cultural shift is best made incrementally. There were many ways that the men I worked with made me, the lonely woman in management, feel like one of the group.
It started with Friday afternoon golf. When a particularly traditional (dare I say, chauvinistic) guy was making the tee times for a casual pick-up game, another said, "Remember to include Betty-Ann." While the first fellow might have conveniently assumed that I wouldn't want to go, the second opened the door for me to walk through. That small step not only made me feel included, it set the stage for considering me to lead some difficult assignments at work. They didn't assume that because I had a family I wouldn't want to manage the out-of-town project.
Later, when working on an acquisition in Germany, my CEO and I went to dinner with the management from the company we were hoping to purchase. At the close of the evening, the managers informed us that they had arranged a city tour for me the next morning while my CEO would be touring a mine. They did more than assume I wouldn't want to attend: they flat out didn't want me to, citing an old mining superstition that says if a woman goes underground there will be an accident. To my relief, my CEO firmly stated that I was a senior executive and officer of our company, and if I didn't go underground, neither would he.
While these examples are specific, there are a number of general things that any male leader can do to help his organization create a culture that better retains women employees. Here are five small steps:
1) Research shows that the more frequently a woman speaks up in meetings, the more her stock declines. Meanwhile, men who do the same are held in increasingly higher esteem. Women intuitively know this, so they sit on their hands, keep quiet and suppress good ideas. If a male leader makes it a personal policy to ask a woman for her opinion in every meeting, he'll be sure not to miss an important perspective. Furthermore, he'll be sending a significant message to the men around the table, that women are to be listened to and not dismissed or discounted.
2) Women don't apply for "stretch" positions -- positions that are often perfectly natural steps up -- and typically only apply for jobs for which they are overqualified. Unless a male leader seeks women out and encourages them, he may be missing the perfect candidate. Research also shows that when companies quit writing their job descriptions using exaggerated goals, more women apply and the company gets a more productive hire.
3) Research demonstrates that organizations tend to undervalue behind-the-scenes work most often done by women, such as avoiding a crisis or building a team. Instead, companies reward courageous risk-taking most often done by men. At the very least, male leaders should openly thank women for their collaborative skills and for being risk-aware. They will feel included and appreciated, and it will encourage them to provide the balanced opinion that can help companies avoid stepping in some serious sinkholes.
4) Women will negotiate harder for others than for themselves; they are very "other-oriented." No one will defend your company more than a woman. You want them on your side, but don't take them for granted. The price for this loyalty is that you have to reciprocate with equal loyalty, to look out for them while they are looking out for others. But isn't that how a good team works?
5) Don't assume women will leave because they are starting a family. If they feel acknowledged and respected, they will find ways to combine motherhood and careers. Research has indicated that unsatisfying working conditions, not the increased responsibility of having a baby, is a greater cause for women moving on from companies. It is hard to come to the office each day feeling like an outsider. Make them feel included and they will stay.
In conclusion, anything that singles women out or identifies them as social anomalies is problematic (such as apologizing to women if you use foul language). Anything that embraces women's differences and makes them feel like a highly regarded member of the group will encourage them to stay. When companies retain women, they not only recoup their investment, they get the benefit of different perspectives. When added together, small steps make big progress.
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