How to Retain Women Leaders in the Workforce - IEDP
  • Managing people

How to Retain Women Leaders in the Workforce

High-achieving women are opting-out. What can companies do to retain them?

Tuesday 03 February 2015


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Although as many women as men take up junior management positions, far fewer women than men stay the course and reach the top. Is this due to old school chauvinism and glass-ceiling prejudice or are other dynamics at play? And what can companies do to retain female talent?

A white paper from Amy Wittmayer, Director, MBA Career Management Center, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School looks at why record numbers of women are leaving the labour force, how traditional workplaces have been slow to accommodate women, and how “It is possible, with the right programs, policies, and organizational cultures, to not only retain high-potential women, but to develop them to be organizational leaders.”


According to Bain & Co’s 2014 US gender parity report, 43% of women aspire to top management when they are in the first two years of their position, compared with 34% of men. But over time, women’s aspiration levels drop more than 60% while men’s stay the same. Among experienced employees, 34% of men are still aiming for the top, while only 16% of women are. Consequently, despite women comprising more than half of all college graduates and about 40% of MBAs, they number only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 17% of board members.

It is wrong to generalise but women in the workforce and in leadership positions can improve productivity, innovation, team dynamics, and decision-making processes. They are typically good at stakeholder understanding and engagement, building organizational sustainability and people management. The loss of experience senior women leaders is damaging to organizations and to the global economy.

The UNC Kenan-Flagler white paper:

  • Examines the ‘push factors’ women experience in the workplace that may factor into their decision to opt out of the workforce;
  • Looks at why women with high educational attainment and women in low-paying jobs are dropping out of the workforce at a higher rate;
  • Explores the costs to women and employers of ‘opting out’;
  • Offers suggestions to HR and talent management professionals about how their organizations can encourage women’s re-entry into the workforce and how to develop women to encourage their entry into leadership positions, and;
  • Provides examples of what some leading organizations are doing to retain women and to develop them into corporate leaders.

One theory is that high-achieving women, whose spouses earn enough to support the family without the women’s income, opt to leave the workforce to raise their children. The paper quotes counter arguments that say these women are not choosing to opt-out, but are rather being pushed out by the lack of professional opportunities for advancement. Employers are simply not providing mid-career women with the opportunities that would increase their likelihood of staying in the workforce. “They are pushed out of the workforce because of a lack of genuine flexibility in work hours and structures, cultures that encouraged extreme work hours, a disconnect between policies on flexibility and leave and the actual application of those policies, the lack of meaningful part-time work, the absence of female role models and managers, and high demands for travel.”

Wittmayer explains how HR and talent management professionals can support women by:

  • Offering flexibility
  • Offering family-friendly benefits and encourage all employees to use them
  • Developing an organizational culture that makes work-life balance not only an expectation, but a reality
  • Actively developing women as leaders

Click on DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE to read the full white paper

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