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  • Writer's pictureJill Hauwiller

Keeping Women in the Workforce: Culture, Systems and Mindset

Over the last three years, women have been leaving the workforce at higher rates than men and at higher rates than in previous similar years. Research from the Center for Creative Leadership and McKinsey & Company delve into the details of this trend and the findings are not surprising. The factors contributing to this are well-documented — the strains of parenting during the pandemic, a lack of flexibility in schedules, and a lack of advancement opportunities. Pay disparities are another reason women leave organizations, and it is worth noting that women of color are particularly affected by pay disparities relative to male colleagues.

Women seek degrees and enter the workforce at the same or higher rates as men do. However, the glass ceiling, with a few exceptions, remains unshattered as women are still not advancing to higher level roles as frequently. As with pay disparities, lagging career advancement is even more prevalent for women of color than it is for others.

While there are themes of what women are looking for in the workplace, individual preferences and career aspirations play an important role, too. This is why it is important for organizations to have leadership and development programs that can be tailored to meet individual and organizational goals. Right now I am working with two clients who are women leaders in different male-dominated industries. Both are ambitious, high-potential leaders who are working to remain true to themselves as they advance within their organizations and meet the expectations of peers and executives.

For my client who is a leader in financial services, she is struggling with a perception of being too reserved or timid. Her peers and senior leaders are looking for her to take bold, strong positions and communicate her point of view in an authoritative manner. This is proving to be a challenge for her because she has a more consensus-oriented leadership style that focuses on elevating others and airing a range of opinions. Her goal is to lead authentically by bringing people together while still communicating a clear vision and direction for her team and organization. Through coaching, she is working to find her voice. She is putting the skills discussed in coaching into practice, including asking for direction and resources more directly. Her leadership team is taking note of the positive change in approach.

On the other hand, a female leader who I work with in the construction industry has developed a reputation among her peers and leadership team for being brash. Her boldness and strong voice is working against her as she looks to progress in the organization. In this case, her challenge is to operate with integrity, balancing her clear perspective with providing others opportunity for input and a safe space to share other points of view. In coaching we have identified approaches to address these challenges. This leader now spends more time planning ahead and preparing for discussions to anticipate feedback. The senior leaders she works with say this is increasing her influence in the organization, and the leader herself is reporting feeling less stressed and more balanced.

These two examples illustrate that there are many ways women in leadership roles show up and are evaluated by their organizations. For these women and others like them to succeed, they need to find a leadership style that works within their organization but is also authentic and aligned with their values. This requires several emotional intelligence skills including self-awareness and empathy. Self-awareness is important for knowing one’s values and leadership style. Empathy comes into play when working with others to understand their needs and values.

Organizations have an important role in correcting the trend of women leaving the workforce and women failing to advance. There are three primary areas that organizations can address to make the workplace more inclusive and successful for women.

  • Culture: Assess what your organization values. This is more than just the handful of words that you list as your organization values alongside a mission statement. Look at what and who is rewarded. Consider how status and influence are communicated.

  • Systems: Policies and procedures can have an outsized impact on those who need a little more flexibility in their work. Hybrid workplaces can alleviate some of the pressure of caring for young children or aging parents, but organizations and managers need to be conscientious about how high profile projects and other career developing-opportunities are assigned. In-person visibility cannot be a substitute for thoughtful consideration of skills, potential and career goals.

  • Mindset: Reflect on the leadership characteristics that your organization values, as evidenced by the leadership styles of those in senior roles. Is there space for a range of leadership approaches regardless of gender? Consider how you evaluate leadership potential and allow for gender-based and gender non-conforming leadership styles.

As people, regardless of gender, evaluate their roles and workplaces, those organizations who are paying attention to talent attractions and retention by investing in leadership development — especially leaders with divergent leadership styles — will be compelling in a tight labor market.

In addition to working with individual leaders to reach their full potential, Leadership Refinery works with organizations to build inclusive, welcoming and engaging cultures and teams. Let’s have a conversation about helping women and everyone at your organization thrive.

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