Make Efforts to ‘Opt in’ Female Leaders

Summer 2012 was abuzz about women, work and life. Marissa Mayer’s selection as CEO of Yahoo and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” from The Atlantic were telling steps in the continuing dialogue. A national commentary about women “opting out” ensued, with questions about how much women “really” want a career and whether or not they can “truly” handle family and work commitments.

Some media commentary, for instance, implied doubt about Mayer’s ability to be CEO of the technology giant as a 37-year-old woman who was about to give birth. As in the past, most of the conversation put the onus on women to prove they can fit or adapt to the current paradigm of work and leadership structures.

It’s time to refocus the conversation. This is not an issue of women opting out. It’s an opportunity for employers to proactively opt in these highly talented and engaged professionals as part of a sustainable and integrated talent management strategy. The reframing approach offers organizations an opportunity to create a practical career path that contours with the realities of motherhood — and fatherhood — and allows organizations to retain strong talent.

Organizations need to view women who take time off to be with their children in certain formative years as individuals who choose to address the immediate priorities of their offspring rather than seeing this “choice” as a sign of relinquishing professional interests.

The fact is that women who leave the working world to take care of their children haven’t lost interest in building their careers. A 2012 report by women’s advocacy group Catalyst, “Women Leaving and Re-entering the Workforce,” said that “through our work with our clients, including exit interview and assessment projects, we find that most women are conflicted about leaving their jobs and find it very difficult to do so. They have spent much time and money investing in their professional development, and their jobs are a large part of their ongoing personal and professional identification.”

Still, organizations need to recognize that women do configure their work differently from men — especially those with children. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women take part-time positions (66 percent) at a rate double that of men, and 30 percent of employed women with children three years of age or younger work part time.

Also, over time many experienced women seek to be their own bosses. Female entrepreneurs tend to be more than 40 years old, according to Go4funding.com. Moreover, a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce showed that between 1997 and 2007 the number of female-owned businesses grew by 44 percent — twice as fast as firms owned by men. Most importantly, women exiting the workforce have proven to be regrettable losses. A report from the Center for Work Life Policy found that 69 percent of women say they would not have off-ramped if their companies had offered flexible work options such as flexible schedules, job sharing, part-time career tracks or unpaid sabbaticals.

Talent leaders have the opportunity to create sustainable, practical and integrated career development paths for these women. Companies benefit when they allow employees to stay engaged at every point of parenthood. Institutional knowledge is retained rather than lost, retraining cost is reduced, and commitment and loyalty — from often strong performers — is maintained over the long haul.

Including women — and men — who choose to be primary caregivers for a period of time in their lives can pay off handsomely for organizations in the long run. Here are some ideas to consider:

• Create official career tracks that are inclusive of mothers and fathers who choose to spend time with their children — no off- and on-ramps, just different paths that adapt to differing lifestyles.

• Create HR policies that proactively offer part-time, job share or telecommuting options as an ongoing career path. Let no one speak of ramping down or off — just a choice to work differently.

• Provide daycare on-site or partner with facilities close by and institute bonding times for parent and child throughout the day. Parents want to hold their kids and check in on them, beyond having them “housed” during the working day. Check to see if your organization encourages parent engagement and visits, without the guilt of “abandoning work.”

• Structurally create management positions that are shared — it’s only a belief system that one person has to run a group/division/company. Trapezoids — or professional firm partnerships — allow for multiple leaders rather than just one leader in the triangle model, like traditional management structures. Great talent is hard to come by. Find a way to keep it.

• Celebrate in authentic joy with parents-to-be — many women are nervous that they will be rejected, castigated or laid off by their employers when they reveal they are pregnant. What a shame that such a joyous occasion need be marred by feelings of guilt and fear. Authentic acceptance of these women will help them shift their negative energies of speculation and fear into energies that produce positive outcomes for them and their employers.

Judy Shen-Filerman is principal and founder of Dreambridge Partners, a communications and leadership development firm. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.