Women in the workforce

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 9 –  April 29, 2005

There is much debate, and I am sure more to come in our office soon with the new and soon to be Moms, about something coined by the Harvard Business Review as the “opt – out revolution”. This refers to what has been identified as a surprising number of women dropping out of main stream careers. The figures are substantial: a survey of the class of 1981 at Stanford University showed that  57% of women graduates leave the workforce. Of three graduating classes at The Harvard Business School only 38% ended up with full time careers. A study of MBA’s showed that of women holding MBA’s only one in three works full time compared with one in 20 for men.

To understand why women leave the workforce the Center for Work Life Policy (a New York based not-for-profit organization) formed a private sector multi year task force in 2004. The task force entitled “The hidden brain drain: Women and Minorities as Unrealized Assets” was sponsored by Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers. From the study of 2,443 women with graduate degrees, professional degrees, and high honors undergraduate degrees a portrait of women’s career paths was charted.

What did they and others find? There are a variety of reasons. One identified by Fast Company in Where are the Women? Feb 2004 is that there is still a lingering bias in the system. Women interviewed for the article say that while overt discrimination is rare, the executive suites of most major corporations remain largely boys’ clubs. Catalyst ( a women’s business group) blames the gap on the fact that women often choose staff jobs like marketing and HR and not what they called ‘line jobs’ – those responsible for profit and loss and it is from this rank that executives are normally chosen.

Another reason identified by Fast Company comes out in the story of Brenda Barnes president and chief executive of the North American arm of PepsiCo. Brenda was considered a top contender for the CEO position but she decided to ‘take this job and shove it’ in 1997. When asked why she offered “When you talk about those big jobs, those CEO jobs, you just have to give them your life. You can’t alter them to make them accommodate women any better than men. It’s just the way it is” In a workplace where women CEO’s of major corporations are so scare it is a true disappointment when any contender voluntarily steps down.

In 1986 Charles A. O’Reilly III, professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford followed up a group of Berkeley MBA’s to see if he could isolate the qualities that led to the corner office. His conclusion: Success in a corporation is less a function of gender discrimination than of how hard a person chooses to compete. And the folks who tend to compete the hardest are generally the stereotypical manly men. In 1999 Marta Cabrera was vice president at JP Morgan Chase, one of only two women in the emerging – markets trading desk. She had a great job, a happy marriage, and two healthy beautiful children – she managed to pull off the career woman’s trifecta. In May of 2000 Cabrera quit. When asked to comment she said “There’s a different quality of what men give up versus what women give up. The sacrifices for women are deeper, and you must weigh them very consciously if you want to continue. I didn’t want to be the biggest, best, greatest. I didn’t feel compelled to be number one”. In his book The Myth of Male Power  William Farrell says the fact that few women make it to the top is a measure of their power not their powerlessness. “They’ve learned they can get respect and love in a variety of different ways – from being a good parent, from being a top executive or a combination of both” He says women are free of the ego needs driving male colleagues. Hmmm.

Another significant reason for women leaving is that corporations don’t do enough to accommodate women’s more significant family responsibilities. Nearly four out of ten highly qualified women 37% have left the work force voluntarily at some point in their careers. There are factors other than having children, there is personal health and caring for elderly parents that rank among the leading reasons. This can be particularly tough with women in the 41 to 55 age group called the “sandwich generation” that are caring for children and aging parents. Sadly there is still a highly traditional division of labor on the home front (and now for my personal favorite statistic, one that will end the debate in the Aznavoorian household that has been going on since I became Mrs. S Aznavoorian in 1989) A survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy said 40% of highly qualified women with spouses felt that their husbands create more work around the house than they perform.

When asked to create a workplace wish list women describe the following as important: the ability to associate with people they respect, the freedom to be themselves, opportunity to be flexible with schedule, and 61% of women consider it very important to have the opportunity to collaborate and be part of a team. The importance of work relationships, of being a part of the team, has been highlighted in research done by Sydney Uni. in their Quality of work/Life index they found that relationships at work are the major factor in what people consider a good quality of work/life.

Work relationships are considered important, however there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In “Forget about home…the real family is at work” AFR April 16-17 2005 states we place a greater importance on our work lives now because we are spending more time at work and have deeper and more nurturing relationships – partly because open plan offices encourage interaction. The article introduces the idea of the “office spouse”. You know you have one when you do what Condoleezza Rice did when she called GW Bush her husb… I mean the president. Or for an example closer to home, Peter Mac meant to ring his mother and instead rang Lyn Lennard. Isn’t that special!

Among women who take “off-ramps” the overwhelming majority (93%) have every intention of returning to work. For many the reasons are financial – they have to work to make ends meet. For others it is because they find pleasure in their chosen careers and what to reconnect with something they love. In focus groups conducted by HBR women talked about how work gives “shape and structure to their lives, boost confidence and self –esteem and confers status in their community.” Their professional identity is their primary identity. Interestingly, focus group participants also spoke of a deepened desire to give back to the community after they took time off work. For these women they went back to work, but not to their previous job because they did not find their careers satisfying or enjoyable.

Unfortunately, only 74% of women who off ramp and want to rejoin the workforce actually do, which goes to show you girls, On the career highway there are many off ramps but few on ramps. More good news, women on average lose 18% of their earning power when they take time off, in business sectors the penalties are more severe where wages drop 28% on average. It is worse if you spend a longer period of time away, women who spend three or more years out of the workforce can expect to lose 37% of their earning power. Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2003 (in the article “Nice Girls don’t ask” showed fewer women attempt to negotiate pay increases. The article concluded that women were less likely to negotiate because of their social conditioning with results in an aversion to promoting their own interests; and many companies penalize women who do ask, by tagging them pushy and aggressive.

So now that I have painted this happy picture, and you look around you and see that in fact a whole lot of Geyer employees are women, and if fact many have had or will have children, what can we do. Fortunately, the data suggested actions that companies could take to ensure female potential does not go unrecognized. Smart companies can develop policies and practices to tap into the female talent pool, and create strategies around retention and reattachment of highly qualified women. Those that do will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage, especially as we all wonder how we will find enough high- caliber talent to drive growth. Such policies include:

1. Create reduced hour jobs – The survey indicates that 89% of women think this is important.

2. Provide flexibility in the day – Many women, like me, don’t require reduced work hours they merely need flexibility.

3. Provide flexibility in the arc of a career – Booze Allen Hamilton, the management consulting firm, recognized that it is not just workday, or work week flexibility that is required. Flexibility must be present across the arc of ones career.

4. Remove the stigma – Don’t penalize people for taking off work, or for wanting to be paid the same as their male colleagues.

5. Stop burning bridges – Only 5% of women in the survey are interested in rejoining the companies they left. Managers will not stay in a departing employee’s good graces unless they take time to explore the reasons highly qualified women leave the work force, and are able and willing to offer options.

6. Provide outlets for altruism – Employers would be well advised to recognize and harness the altruism of women, support their female professionals in their advocacy and public service efforts. 7. Nurture ambition – Implement mentoring and networking programs that help women expand and sustain their professional aspirations.

 

 

 

 

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