There has been much discussion about the importance of creating a diverse workforce, whether this means hiring more women, people of color, disabled individuals or others who have traditionally faced barriers and discrimination in hiring. The presence of women in leadership positions has been found to increase productivity and innovation and improve team dynamics and decision-making processes. A recent research study by McKinsey demonstrates that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. As such, many organizations are increasingly adopting intentional hiring practices, undergoing diversity trainings and actively aiming to mitigate salary or wage inequalities to attract a more diverse hiring pool.
However, it is important to remember that hiring is only half of the equation. A 2014 white paper analyzed a troubling downward trend in American women’s labor force participation, with record numbers of women leaving the labor force. The report concluded that women aren’t “opting out” so much as they are being pushed out of the workforce, due to the lack of professional opportunities for advancement and employer inflexibility around childcare needs (e.g. telework, paid leave or work-hour flexibility).
Studies show that more than half of women who start out in Fortune 500 companies leave before they reach the executive level. The same is true of the technology industry, where a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 56 percent of women in computing jobs will leave their positions at the mid-level.
Female exit can have a long-term, negative impact on employers, especially as baby boomers retire and the pool of agency leadership continues to shrink. High turnover rates also have significant direct and indirect costs for employers. Agencies need to consider how to retain and better accommodate a gender-diverse workforce, which often requires creating policies and workplace culture that actively support and develop female employees.
Here are some important best practices to make your organization a better work environment for female talent:
1. Formalize flexibility and work-life balance policies.
Flexibility is one of the most highly valued job benefits for female employees, especially because women are often the primary caretakers in their family of children or elderly relatives (the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women are responsible for 54 percent more of childcare than men).
Management should offer family-friendly benefits and encourage all employees to use them. In many workplaces, there can be a disconnect between the policies and practices found in the employee handbook and what employees actually experience. Having good policies in place is meaningless if the company culture stigmatizes those who take advantage of them. Create a workplace culture that makes work-life balance an expectation, and set clear standards for managers to allow for flexibility in work hours, work-from-home days or opportunities for remote work.
2. Allow women to have a say in company culture.
In male-dominated industries — like tech or government —workplace culture can sometimes reflect this gender disparity. Be cognizant of what types of social events and team-building activities are most common at your organization. Think about whether women are excluded (either explicitly or implicitly) from certain activities among co-workers that might be traditionally “gendered” (e.g. male employees going to a cigar bar every Wednesday evening after work). Aim to choose workplace and social events that can help women feel connected and engaged within your team. Create a workplace culture of diversity that reflects multiple interests.
3. Draw a line against sexism in the workplace.
Though this may seem intuitive, it’s important to remember that sexism is not limited to blatant instances of sexual harassment or abuse. Your organization needs to have clear policies and reporting mechanisms in place, but it is equally important to create a culture of respect and inclusion. For example, make it a norm to ban sexist jokes or comments. Though these asides may not be directed at a specific employee, such attitudes can perpetuate an environment where female employees are made to feel less capable or respected by their peers. In a similar vein, be aware of the tendency to interrupt or speak over women. A recent study found that in the workplace, women are more likely to speak less and are interrupted by men more when they do. Create rules or practices for team meetings to ensure that employees feel comfortable voicing their opinions and can be heard.
Another often subtle instance of discrimination is the tendency for women to be saddled with housekeeping duties. Do female employees at your organization tend to be responsible for notetaking or timekeeping at meetings? Are women asked more frequently take on administrative or social tasks, such as being in charge of office organization and cleanup, or bringing in baked goods? Make an effort to divide these tasks equally among your employees so that women aren’t disproportionately asked to perform both paid and unpaid work.
4. Formalize female mentorship programs and take steps to prioritize gender diversity within your teams (especially at the management and leadership level).
Mentorship is crucial to encourage female employees to aspire to senior leadership roles and advance in their careers, especially when there are few female role models or managers to look up to. Women are sponsored significantly less than men, which means that they may have fewer opportunities for advancement in their (often male-dominated) fields. While men may have more informal opportunities to meet and network with professional peers, a formal mentorship program can provide women with important opportunities for knowledge sharing, affirmation and professional guidance, which is crucial to long-term career success. Seeing women in high-level positions can also help women at the early or mid-stages of their career feel more valued and included at their organization.
Unequal wage compensation, gender imbalances in senior positions, inflexible schedules and even active disparagement of women continue to affect organizations of every size and in every industry. But the positive news is that there are basic steps your agency can take to create a better workplace culture for women and improve female retention.
Read this previous GovFem post about how to make your job descriptions more women-friendly, here.