Many businesses have a pyramid problem. The talent pool is 50 percent women. The representation of women in the lower ranks, and even in middle management, is solid. But the percentage of women gets lower at higher levels of the corporate hierarchy. Catalyst reports that, while women are 46.7 percent of the Fortune 500 workforce, they represent only 14.1 percent of executive officers and 7.5 percent of top earners.
Not addressing the pyramid problem — finding out where women go and why — costs businesses in terms of turnover, reputation and the ability to attract the best female talent. Further, it deprives businesses of gender diversity leadership benefits. In a series of reports titled “The Bottom Line,” Catalyst shows a correlation between gender diversity in leadership and better financial returns.
Many business leaders attribute the pyramid problem to women’s role in raising children and caring for elders. The juggling act does cause some women to quit. Even if businesses could effect major change in cultural gender roles, however, this change would not solve the pyramid problem.
The percentage of women who leave jobs to handle family responsibilities is relatively small, and most intend to return. Women also quit to start their own businesses — women-owned companies account for nearly a third of all U.S. businesses. Many go to another workplace they hope will be more welcoming, using the phrase, “I want to spend more time with my family” as an out to avoid burning bridges. The phrase often masks other reasons for their departure, factors that make women less able or willing to juggle work and family.
According to the Center for Talent Innovation’s “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited” study, a decision to leave often involves pull factors such as family responsibilities and push factors such as negative aspects of the work experience. Leaders will have the most impact on the pyramid problem by focusing on push factors. According to the study, the top two push factors are lack of enjoyment and satisfaction with their jobs and feeling stalled.
Essentially, women leave their jobs, often without naming the cause, because they are disengaged. They often don’t feel fully valued, don’t have access to the formal and informal networks critical to their advancement and don’t get adequate mentorship or feel they can succeed.
Two root causes drive these elements of disengagement: the comfort principle and an unconscious preference in defining leadership and excellence. The comfort principle is a natural tendency for people to spend time with people like themselves. In giving out good assignments or time to mentor someone, it is natural that leaders think first of those with whom they feel most comfortable. If leaders bring this tendency to conscious awareness, they can monitor whether comfort is affecting women’s access to good work and mentoring, which lead to experience, exposure and success.
Because men have been in the business world longer, it is natural that leadership concepts have a masculine flavor. Women who get great results but do it in a feminine way may not get full credit for those results. If performance criteria are influenced by unconscious preferences, women can feel de-valued and, ultimately, stalled.
To solve the pyramid problem, leaders must increase engagement for women. They must implement policies and procedures to assure the comfort principle and unconscious preferences don’t limit women’s full access to mentoring and other opportunities or make them feel less valued. Leaders must understand and appreciate both masculine and feminine ways of accomplishing results, and that increasing engagement for women pays off with higher retention and a healthier bottom line.
Caroline Turner is a business consultant, former senior vice president at Coors Brewing Co. and author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.