Many recent studies validate the business case for increased gender diversity in leadership. Most recently, a comprehensive 2016 report of 22,000 publically traded companies in 91 countries by Peterson Institute for International Economics and Ernst and Young reinforces the fact that an increase of women in management positions is associated with a 15 percent rise in profitability.
It’s hard to ignore the argument that it makes business sense for companies to address the lack of female representation in leadership. In fact, many companies have accepted the business case and have initiated efforts to advance women. Yet today we see little progress. According to a recent Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 companies in the United States, women hold only 4 percent of CEO positions.
Business leaders are learning that the advancement of women is not straightforward. The retention of top female talent is complex because the nature of women’s ambition is complex, and until organizations understand women’s ambition and what they need to sustain that ambition over time, they will continue to lose their high-potential female talent.
Women have an intricate relationship with ambition. Their ambition is influenced by societal norms and expectations of what it means to be a woman and a working mother. Additionally, their ambitions are compromised by the bias they face in the workplace as aspiring assertive women.
Women are well-prepared for career success. They now hold more undergraduate and graduate degrees than men, and many studies have shown they enter the workforce with great optimism and determination. But what happens to these ambitious women over time?
In the recent report, Lost Leaders in the Pipeline, my coauthor Lisa Mainiero, and I offer an account of the obstacles women face in the workplace today and provide practical solutions for what companies can do to retain their female high-potentials. The survey of 615 professional women from a multitude of industries shows that 74 percent of respondents self-identified as very or extremely ambitious.
What happens to this pool of top female talent?
The findings of the report reveal:
- Women’s ambition diminishes mid-career after five to 10 years in the workplace.
- Women don’t lose that ambition but face obstacles that discourage them from staying in the workforce and seeking leadership positions.
- Women don’t necessarily want to abandon their career for family reasons.
- Women don’t see a clear path to leadership, and therefore get lost in the pipeline or opt-out altogether.
It is apparent from the findings that companies are missing an enormous opportunity to capitalize on women’s ambition to benefit the performance and profitability of their organization. The reason we don’t see more progress in advancing women is because companies don’t understand what women want and need over the span of their careers to sustain and nurture their ambition. It is that lack of understanding that has contributed to false assumptions and programs that are ineffective in retaining top female talent. That lack of understanding has motivated companies to spending millions of dollars on diversity initiatives that have little impact.
Here are seven recommendations for companies that want to retain their high-potential female talent:
- Conduct a custom assessment of the female talent pool to better understand their needs and to determine the optimal way to support them over the span of their careers.
- Identify high potential women early, potentially in the first three years in the workplace, and provide direct career planning.
- Adopt innovative career paths that involve diagonal moves, lateral moves, upward and downward moves, enrichment moves and exploratory moves so each woman can develop skills, acquire leadership practice, and create more fulfilling careers. Provide line experience early and encourage high potential women to stay in line jobs rather than move to staff roles. Hardwire the contemporary career paths based on merit and performance.
- Provide flexible work options such as job sharing, remote work, and on and off ramp programs that allow for career interruptions and provide seamless re-entry without marginalizing leadership potential.
- Train and incentivize mid-level managers in flexible work options.
- Provide training, coaching, individualized mentoring support based on the results of the assessment.
- Measure success with human capital metrics along the pipeline to determine where shortfalls of leadership exist and how to move employees to retain talent.
It is a positive sign that companies are seeking ways to advance women to leadership roles. We now need to ensure, however, that these organizations are spending their money and resources wisely and designing programs that will help facilitate an increase in gender diversity in the pipeline and at the top echelons. Doing so is a win-win formula. Ambitious women, recognized as valued contributors, will be supported and encouraged to reach their full potential. And companies will succeed in achieving their diversity objectives and as a result, realize improved profitability.