6 ways to retain women at work

Two female coworkers smiling as they look at a laptop

Here’s the good news about women at work: there a lot of them – a record high in June, said the BLS. 

Here’s the less good news: A lot of them still think about leaving, according to a Deloitte study about Women at Work. 

And here’s the unfortunately not surprising news: it’s still the same old inflection point hanging them up — conflicts between family and jobs. Despite their increasing presence at work, women are still expected to do most of the heavy lifting at home. 

That’s a big problem for employers – especially as return-to-office escalates those conflicts. Data may say the job market is cooling, but that’s small comfort to all the organizations who still can’t fill key positions. “If every unemployed person in the country found a job,” writes the US Chamber of Commerce, “we would still have nearly 3 million open jobs.” 

That means every employee matters. So while the latest data about women roaring back is heartening, it will take work to preserve – specifically efforts aimed at pushing back on both stubborn philosophical barriers that make women question careers, and the tangible barriers that make careers impossible. 

And that will require companies to be purposeful in a few key areas. 

Recognize women as a competitive edge. Companies with more women are known to be more profitable. That’s not surprising since no single group represents all of us, and without representation, companies lose out on the ideas and opinions that speak to the entire potential population you hope to market to and serve. So companies that are fully representative don’t look at gender equity as a check in the box, but an important part of their business proposition, with clear ascension and leadership tracks women can see, emulate, and realize. 

Make child care a priority. COVID may be behind us, but child care shortages remain – something that drives not only whether women come back after parenthood, but what jobs they choose. It’s difficult in all industries. But it’s most pointed in people-centric fields like healthcare and manufacturing, where to have or not have child care is the difference between women who leave or stay, and so floors that are fully staffed – or not. 

Remember that childhood doesn’t stop at kindergarten: The story often goes child care challenges only last until a child goes to grade school. That’s debatable since a 5-year-old off from school is no better able to stay home alone than a toddler. And the average school year has a gap of roughly 80 days between how many parents are expected at work and the number children are in school. Clearly communicated flexibility policies paired with benefits targeted to the audience, plus some control over shifts allows for women to roll with school calendars while still keeping up with the job.  

Evaluate your response to parental leave. What happens when a woman announces a baby? Is there a frown followed by skepticism about whether she’s really coming back? Or support with a clear path showing how she can go out successfully and come back with her foot still on the gas? The latter speaks volumes. But that requires not only a company-wide action plan, but also training for managers in how to approach it. The commitment will be worth it. 

Make it ok for men to be caregivers. A man’s ability to pitch in on the home front may seem separate from women’s success metrics at work. But in reality, they’re absolutely connected. When men are seen as employees first – if they’re professionally dinged for taking time for families, for example – women become the default parent, thus perpetuating stereotypes that limit women’s careers. Letting men see themselves in work and home roles – featuring them prominently in communications such as in this manufacturing success story – is not just equitable, but ultimately strategic. 

Here’s a sixth reason to take action now: policies that support women have long-term effects. By providing mentors and role models, successful woman at work pave the way for more women to see what’s possible and so to follow the path. “When women obtain high-level management positions,” wrote a Harvard Business Review author a few years ago, “they often act as agents of change.” In other words, the more women there are, the more there will be. 

On the occasion of Women’s History Month, let’s make that kind of momentum possible. 

Two female coworkers smiling as they look at a laptop

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