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Since the dawn of time, women have been flexing their leadership skills. They’ve served as executives, politicians, matriarchs and teachers. They’ve created beautiful art, pioneered groundbreaking innovations, penned prominent literature, managed households and advocated for human rights. Without a doubt, society is better off for women’s work — yet women continue to be underrepresented as leaders in modern workplaces.
Just look at STEM. Popular media might have you believe that we’ve defeated the gender gaps in these fields — or, at least, made representation gains. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The ratio of women to men in tech roles has actually slid back over the past 35 years, according to Accenture. Up to half of the women in tech leave by the time they turn 35, resulting in under 20% of CIOs and CTOs being women.
We’ve seen a similar workplace exodus over the past two years as millions of working women decided to stay home to care for children and aging parents. For the working women who stayed, it hasn’t been easy, either. On top of the added pressure and fatigue of the pandemic, McKinsey found that women are doing more to support their teams, including advancing DEI efforts, mentoring and championing underrepresented women on their teams. Despite that, women held under 30% of senior management roles in 2020.
These are the very leaders you cannot afford to lose right now, so how can you ensure that you’re setting women up to successfully reach executive positions when experienced employees and women are most likely to leave the workforce? Start with these three strategies.
1. Provide at-work networking opportunities
In business, it’s often about who you know. But for millennia, the spaces designed for professional networking inherently kept women and other marginalized individuals away.
Additionally, it’s often hard for women to attend after-hours networking events as they juggle personal commitments. This goes double for working mothers, who still shoulder most household duties compared with their male partners. To remedy this imbalance, you need to provide networking and training opportunities during the 9 to 5 — whether that means allocating the budget to allow more equitable opportunities to attend industry conferences, hosting on-site events yourself or finding virtual opportunities for women to learn and network with their peers.
That said, entrance to networking opportunities will do women little good if they ultimately don’t feel welcome or have a sense of belonging. So consider creating safe spaces for women to network with other women. From a cultural perspective, people want to see representation in the workplace.
The benefits will be twofold. More women will have the opportunity to connect with colleagues and other industry professionals. Additionally, incorporating networking opportunities into the workday itself (rather than in addition to the 40-hour workweek) can help counter rampant pandemic-related burnout, which is particularly prevalent among women. Per McKinsey, one-third of women thought about leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers in 2021.
2. Build promotion pathways
The idea that the corporate world is a meritocracy is a myth. Men aren’t leaders more often because men are better suited to the job but because of deeply ingrained biases and societal attitudes against women’s leadership potential.
Case in point: One 2021 analysis of a large retail chain found that while women made up 56% of entry-level workers, they made up only 14% of district managers. Despite the women employees earning better performance ratings, they often received lower “potential scores” (i.e. how much their managers believed they’d grow and develop) and therefore were not as likely to advance up the rungs.
In response, you need to create strong professional development plans and, where possible, promotion pathways for women employees. If women don’t see an achievable pathway to success, they may choose to exit. Indeed, 77% of women say the largest barrier to gender equity is the lack of information on how to advance.
3. Create flexible work schedules
Two years after the percentage of women in the workforce plunged, it still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, many women will never return to the workforce, not because they didn’t find fulfillment in their jobs but because in-office work is no longer feasible for their lifestyles.
Remote or hybrid work models don’t work for every industry, but if possible, give your employees the option to work from home at least part of the time. At the very least, you need to create a culture that accommodates working mothers. For example, institute guidelines around when internal meetings can be scheduled so they don’t compete with school pickup and drop-off times.
And if you do go the fully remote route, take steps to ensure that “working from home” doesn’t turn into “living at work.” As mentioned, women are more susceptible to burnout due to their outsized responsibilities at home. Define working boundaries for your employees so they’re not constantly feeling the pressure to work outside of the “typical” workday.