Women bus drivers campaign for equal pay, Twickenham 1947, (Source: TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University)
Ideas for Leaders #326

Retaining Women in the Workplace

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Key Concept

A record number of women are leaving the workforce — a trend that is detrimental to both the women themselves and their organizations. How can organizations ensure that they not only retain high-potential women, but also develop them to be organizational leaders? This Idea explores some of the steps that can be taken.

Idea Summary

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the participation rate for women in the labour force was down from 60.3% in 2000, to 57.6% in 2012. This was despite the fact that women weathered the recent recession better than men, because of the majority of them were employed in ‘recession-proof’ industries, like health, education, hospitality, and retail. But as the economy recovered, women began leaving the workforce and as of September 2013 they had the lowest participation rate for the past 24 years. Why are so many women ‘opting out’ of the workforce?

The two top drivers at play in this opt-out decision seem to be educational attainment and childcare issues, according to a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School White Paper on this subject. Amy Wittmayer from the school writes that women who opt out of the workforce do not actually plan on doing so permanently; she points to a survey that suggests the vast majority of these women are actually trying to get back into the workforce. In fact, they felt they had not opted out as much as had been pushed out. Being constantly passed over for promotion, or employers failing to accommodate their status as mothers, for example, are reasons that lead many women to feel they have no choice but to leave.

However, they pay a dear price for doing so; Wittmayer highlights a 2013 study that found that women who take just one year off will lose 20% of their lifetime earnings; women who take two to three years off earn 30% less; and, women who take three or more years off will lose more than $1 million over their career or up to 37 percent of their income. Some of this financial loss can be attributed to women in high-level positions finding it difficult to re-enter the workforce, and therefore finding themselves taking part-time positions or jobs at lower levels paying less than their previous ones.

But it is not just women who lose out in these situations — employers do too. Turnover costs alone are enough for organizations to take note, but there is also the fact that women contribute different skills to men (such as: improving team dynamics, greater empathy, flexibility and strong communication skills) which makes their attraction and retention a strategic priority.

Business Application

Wittmayer offers practical steps that HR and talent management professional can take to retain their female employees and develop them into corporate leaders:

  • Offer flexibility: this is essential and comes in many different shapes; for example, at the micro-level, you can allow employees to work remotely and offer flexible hours. At McKinsey & Company, for example, consultants can take five to 10 additional unpaid weeks off per year between assignments.
  • Offer family-friendly benefits and encourage all employees to use them: at the 100 best companies identified by working mothers, maternity and paternity leave, job sharing, paid sick leave, back-up childcare, and more are offered, as well as on-site lactation rooms.
  • Develop an organizational culture that makes work-life balance not only an expectation, but a reality: it is not enough to have the policies in place to encourage flexibility and work-life balance; it is even more important to ensure your organization’s culture does not stigmatize those who take advantage of them.
  • Actively develop women as leaders: ways to advance women as leaders in organizations include ensuring accountability, measuring and rewarding ‘invisible’ work, and setting an example. Leadership training geared specifically towards women may also be useful.
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Idea conceived

  • February 2014

Idea posted

  • February 2014

DOI number



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