By Mindy Storrie and Ruth Palombo Weiss
In a seminal 2012 white paper titled, “The New Business Imperative: Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Women in the Workplace”, the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School explores the changing role of women in the workplace and the business imperative to foster women’s roles in organizations.
The paper also examines the persistent gap in female representation in leadership positions and looks at perception gaps on the effectiveness of organizations in recruiting, developing, and retaining female employees. Finally the paper offers HR and talent management professionals some steps to take to recruit, develop, and retain women in organizational leadership roles.
The people who responded to the survey were for the most part C-suite executives responsible for T & D. They had positions such as CLO, VP of HR, or VP of talent for their organizations. We were happily surprised that we received over 900 responses to our survey and 631 of them self-identified as working in talent development. We looked at the themes and consistent remarks that the respondents made. There was a pretty wide range in the number of women who responded versus the men (80 percent women and 20 percent men) giving the survey a specific perspective. This may simply mean that more women were inclined to participate in the survey, which explains the higher number of responses from women.
What jumped out at us was how many organizations are perceived as not caring about training and development for women. Write-in comments included many statements about the need to create or develop a formal program. Our guess is that the firms our respondents work for think that their L & D programs are delivering more than they are. They may be perceived by women employees to not be as important to the firm as they truly are. At the same time, some respondents (primarily men and more senior leaders including both men and women) gave fairly positive statements about efforts designed for women. It may be that while men have a much more positive outlook, women appear to be more critical.
“Another surprise was both the gender differences in answers and the fact that the senior talent folks aren’t in alignment with those who are in the managerial positions,” says Kip Kelly Director of Marketing and Business Development for the Kenan Flagler Business School. “There’s a perception gap between these levels. It’s about perceptions, not necessarily facts, and clearly perceptions really do matter because they influence both decisions and funding. If senior people have a different view from those managers in the trenches, it can have far-reaching repercussions.”
In 1964, women comprised nearly 40 percent of the U.S. labor force. Today, women make up 61 percent of the labor force and are attaining college-level degrees at a faster rate than their male counterparts (Bureau of Labor Statistics—BLS--2011). Historically, working women had limited choices when it came to occupations. Most worked as domestic servants, factory workers, administrative staffers, teachers, and nurses. Lifetime employment for women was rare; most left the workforce when they married or became pregnant. A 2011 survey showed that four out of 10 women in the U.S. workforce are working mothers and are their households’ primary breadwinners, and nearly two-thirds are primary or co-breadwinners (Boushey in Shoemaker, Brown & Barbour, 2011).
Today, women are also the world’s largest group in terms of purchasing decisions. Studies show that women comprise between 80 and 85 percent of the U.S. consumer market. Combine this with the knowledge that companies with higher percentages of senior-level female managers tend to outperform their competitors, and it comes as no surprise that those organizations failing to target women in recruiting, development, and retention strategies may miss their bottom-line goals.
Yet, there is a persistent gap between numbers of men and women in leadership positions. Today, women are still three times more likely to work in administrative support jobs than men, and while women are far more likely than men to work in professional-level positions (approximately 26 percent of women versus approximately 17 percent of men), they are clustered in low-paying fields such as education and health care.
Despite the fact that women are slowly making inroads into management, business, and finance positions and are out-pacing men in the attainment of higher education, a gap in compensation persists. According to the BLS, at all education levels women earn about 75 percent as much as men. A recent Korn/Ferry International study found that the pay gap continues into the C-suite. Researchers found that the pay gap between women and men at the C-suite level was between 13 and 25 percent (Landis, Predolin et al., 2011).
One of the factors that may reflect this persistent pay gap is the lack of women in senior leadership positions. Top managers in many companies need to look honestly at their organizations and assess what gaps exist and how well they think they’re providing women the chance to advance and how their employees see those opportunities.
A 2009 Developmental Dimensions International (DDI) report offered a few conclusions as to why women have failed to advance to higher positions in management. These conclusions included:
• The lack of high-potential programs in organizations and the lack of women in those programs. Half of the organizations that participated in the DDI survey said they identified high potential employees, but at all management levels women were less likely than men to be identified as high potential. In fact, the higher the management level, the larger the gap between men and women.
• The DDI study found that while many leaders thought leadership transitions were challenging, slightly more than half of the organizations in the survey offered transition training. Furthermore, 35 percent of male executives reported receiving support for leadership transitions, versus 28 percent of female executives.
• Men were twice as likely to have been assigned multinational leadership responsibilities as women (21 percent for men versus 9 percent for women), and this gap persisted at the executive level, where 45 percent of men were given them versus 25 percent of women. Multinational leadership responsibilities can be powerful accelerants of personal and professional development and are often used as a criterion for promotion.
Those women who do achieve senior management positions in organizations appear to be representing their gender well. Several studies show that women are perceived to be better leaders than men. A 2011 study conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of more than 7,000 leaders found that at every management level, more women were rated by their peers, bosses, direct reports, and others as better overall leaders than men, and that the higher the level in the organization, the wider the margin. The study was based on 360-degree evaluations and rated leaders on 16 competencies. Women out-scored men in 15 out of the 16 competencies.
There are not only gaps in terms of pay, position attainment, and development among men and women in the workplace, but there are also distinct perception gaps between men and women of how effective organizations are when it comes to recruiting, developing, and retaining women.
The Zenger Folkman survey asked respondents if they thought the number of women in senior-leadership positions had increased in the past five years. Men were much more positive in their responses, with 57 percent saying the number of women in senior-level positions had increased, versus 36 percent of female respondents. When asked how effective their organizations had been in recruiting women, 53 percent of men said their organizations were extremely or moderately effective, versus 33 percent of women. Similarly, when asked if their organizations were effective in retaining women, 73 percent of men said their organizations were extremely or moderately effective, versus 52 percent of women.
Shrinking the gap
Our report recommends several steps that companies can take to shrink the gender gap.
• Assessing real and perceived gaps in gender equality may include conducting third-party exit interviews to solicit honest feedback about why people are leaving the organization and surveying applicants who turn down job offers to learn why.
• Many Gen Y women tend to think ahead and evaluate employers based on whether a company will offer the flexibility they may need years down the line, for example, when they will have childcare or eldercare responsibilities. Gen Y women may not need on-site day care, part-time work options, and job share programs when they are hired, but they anticipate having those needs and expect potential employers to have programs in place (Barrett, 2011).
• When determining who can use flexibility programs, employers often assign that responsibility to direct supervisors because of the notion that not all jobs—or employees—are suitable for such programs. Employers also tend to believe that direct supervisors and managers are the best people to make these decisions. Direct supervisors and managers, in turn, are often hesitant to allow employees to take advantage of flexible work options because of supervisory challenges.
However, managers can learn how to manage remote workers effectively. They can reduce their own hesitation by learning how to discuss flexibility options with employees. For example, a manager can be taught how to approach an employee who has eldercare issues, broach the subject, and then review available flexibility options. By ensuring that managers and supervisors have the information and training needed to offer and manage flexible work options, such work options can become mutually self-directed.
• Our study recommends that to make mentorships work for women in high- potential programs, employers should:
o Clarify and communicate the intent of the program. Mentors and mentees should understand that the mentorship program has been developed for high-potential women and that the intent of the program is to promote high-potential women more aggressively into senior management positions.
o Match sponsors and high-potential women in light of program goals. If a program’s goal is to advance the promotion of high-potential women, they should be matched with senior-level mentors who can champion or sponsor them into those roles. If the goal is personal development, mentorship matches should be based on the frequency of contact and good chemistry.
o Coordinate efforts and involve direct supervisors. Mentorship programs should not be run solely out of the HR department, but should involve direct supervisors. This ensures more support from the front lines and increases the likelihood that the mentorship will be considered in performance evaluations, in training and development opportunities, and in succession plans.
Additionally, we suggest that employees need to engage in conversation with their employers to find out what they can do to help the organization retain them. Communication is a two-way street.
Mindy Storrie is Director of Leadership Development at the University of North Carolina
Kenan-Flagler Business School. Ruth Palombo Weiss is editor of Learning Executive Briefing.