Women will leave unless businesses do three key things

In my early thirties, I was forced to quit the best job I had ever had.

As a senior executive of a global public company, I had a diverse challenging role and travelled regularly overseas. Yet I wanted children. The two simply didn’t align. I wanted to reduce my hours while my children were young, but my only option was to job share in a far inferior role. So in search of a more flexible, fulfilling career, I took my 15 years of experience, left the organisation and started up my own consulting business.

It seems I’m not alone. Women are now leaving employers at breakneck speed. In America women are starting 1288 new businesses a day, double the rate from only 3 years ago. The number of female entrepreneurs in Australia has doubled since 2007 and there are currently around 1 million women business owners. The most significant statistic for corporate employers today though is that about 78% of those who opted to resign from their work to start a business belonged to middle or upper management.

Why the brain-drain epidemic and what do companies need to do differently to retain their great female employees? Here are my top three steps for employers:

1. Change corporate attitude

As I wrote in Winning the War For Talent, attracting and keeping talented people is the number one issue on most global CEO surveys and skills shortages are getting worse. Educating executives in the realities of 21st century recruitment so they understand that they simply can’t afford to write off a large part of their workforce is the first step towards change. Once executives understand that retaining experienced female employees is now vital to achieving long term business success, the modifications required at all levels of the business to build a more female-friendly workplace are then possible.

2. Implement specific female-friendly strategies, including:

– Have quotas or set targets at middle manager level to create ‘brightness of future’

To retain great women, an organisation must be able to offer inspiring promotional opportunities, what I call ‘brightness of future’. For instance, I doubt the Liberal National party will keep, or even attract, many talented women with only one female minister in their nineteen-member Cabinet. Like them, I never used to think that quotas were the answer. Yet after seeing companies with over 80% female workforces who still don’t have a single women on their executive team or board, and speaking to colleagues who have experienced the glass ceiling and the ‘Boy’s Club’ biases, I now accept that without pro-active measures there will never be real change. It is futile, however, to set targets for senior executives or board appointments if middle managers are leaving in droves. Organisations need a system at this level to inspire women to stay.

– Replicate the advantages women get as female entrepreneurs, within the organisation

In essence, allow women to run their own business within the business. This is a common strategy for many ‘best employer’ companies, and involves setting stringent performance outcomes and then allowing employees to be autonomous and flexible in how they achieve them.

Have an HR champion of high calibre at the top table to decrease workplace and hiring discrimination

As journalist Catherine Fox so succinctly asked, if our workplaces are such rational meritocracies, ‘why then does the merit reside in a very narrow cohort of white, middle-aged men?’ And why do studies show that women who become mothers are perceived as less competent, committed workers, when fathers’ evaluations improve, even though real job performance doesn’t change? Until employers confront the brutal fact that sexual discrimination still exists in corporate Australia and tackle this head-on, by appointing an HR champion within their organisation, then there is unlikely to be much improvement.

Change standard practices that act as an impediment to women in the workplace

Many standard practices have developed without rational thought, and some are actively discouraging to female workers. For instance, when the Victorian State Police Force extended its fitness test time by half a minute, female employees increased from 26 to 41%. Nappy company, Kimberley-Clark changed their start time for Chinese workers to 10am, allowing mothers to avoid rush-hour traffic and solved its high staff turnover problem. Strategies can be as simple as using Google Hangout rather than insisting on face-to-face catch-ups, or changing team meeting times to be more parent-friendly. An HR champion can drive this kind of intelligent practice.

Offer career options that reflect realities of life, not just conventional hierarchical structure

Many sporting teams extend the careers of their best athletes by using them as mentors or interchange players and the same principle can be applied to talented workers. A high-achieving woman might prefer to do project-based work while her kids are young, rather than become a time-intensive regional manager. This allows the organisation to retain these experienced and highly competent women, many of whom are happy to take on more hierarchal roles down the track.

3. Focus on continuous improvement

When Flight Centre introduced a ‘job share’ scheme for travel consultants who had become mothers, it failed. On analysis they realised that it wasn’t that job sharing didn’t work – it was simply that some of the standard systems needed to be changed to support this new kind of set-up. The company now has an entire in-house department called Flexi-Positions that includes a newsletter outlining recruitment options, a Flight Centre mothers’ chat site, and links to local babysitting and nanny services. Without a focus on continuous improvement, the idea would never have got off the ground.

With so much recent media focus on workplace inequities for women, the companies that embrace the above techniques will create a real point of difference and stand out like beacons in the marketplace. For those who are still resistant, all I can say is that recruiting great women without addressing how to retain them is like filling a bathtub with liquid gold … and then leaving the plug out.

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda.

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