Getting from 3% to 50%: Retaining female leaders

Part two of Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk's 'Yes We Can' series

In a six-part series, Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk of Swim explore the invisible barriers to career success that trip up women in the ad industry – and how they can be overcome. In part two, Vonk tells leaders how their firms stand to gain by encouraging women leaders to rise – and not leave

Pow. Today’s headlines and research across industries say “more women in senior roles means companies can expect better results.” A flip through The New York Times best-seller The Athena Doctrine (co-authored by two Y&R planners) shows the whole world is crying out for a more female approach to leadership in politics and corporations.

Its pages overflow with case studies that illustrate how women in powerful posts (and men who implement a female-style of leadership, i.e. collaborative, big-picture, empathetic) uncover innovative solutions that can crack even the most staggering challenges. Like, Iceland’s financial meltdown. (In the aftermath, the entire country did a reboot with women replacing men in top jobs and a dramatic turnaround ensued). It stands to reason that women can bring the fresh perspective and powerful leadership skills to guide groups to fresh thinking in our industry, too.

So where are they? For the Marketing reader who’s struggling to find or retain the senior women who can bring new levels of success for your company, you’re not alone. There’s a mass exodus of women off the “up” escalator as they approach their mid-30s – a decades-long trend that’s not changing even with women exploding into our buildings from schools where they outnumbered the men.

Here are three things you can do differently as a leader, starting today, that mean you can buck the trend, reap the benefits and set a progressive example for others to copy.

Change your company’s culture of bias
We’re all biased towards people like “us,” from the start. We’re in our comfort zone when we’re surrounded by people who think and act like we do. In companies led by men, bias is a top reason men keep getting those top jobs, no matter how many women may be ready to step up. Humans come by bias honestly, but we pay a big price for it.

Homogenous groups tend to deliver a smaller range of solutions, for starters. All-male leadership (or all-female, for that matter) is in conflict with a flourishing creative culture. And women who feel they don’t have a shot at jobs they want, aren’t staying. The enlightened leader who wants to retain talented women and keep them on track to fill leadership roles has to go further than saying “no more biased behaviors” at the all-staff meeting. Studies show nothing short of the top declaring zero-tolerance – and following through with penalties – will change the picture.

When the most senior leaders set the example with policy and by calling it out when it happens, people start to really get it. When your employees lose reluctance to call out bias and deliver teachable moments to offenders, it’s on its way out. You’ve created a place where women will grow, make their greatest contribution and want to stay.

Listen to your women
When you invite them to tell you their real experience, their real barriers to their goals, you’ll hear a lot you may not have known and get the opportunity to respond before they’re gone. Women who take an early exit from your company too often assume they can’t have what would work for them (the flexible hours that may make all the difference to the mom managing two full-time jobs, for instance).

You may learn that something as small as a “yes” to a woman bringing her young child on a long business trip will lift a huge load of stress and mean a better performance. You may hear all kinds of ideas for a better workplace (and hey, what works for women generally works for men, too.) If you don’t ask, know that most women won’t come tell you.

Erase flex time stigmas that punish the working parent
Women who ask for flex time and get it often find it comes with strings made of steel. “You’re leaving at 5? Not in on Friday? Really?” Even if it isn’t said out loud, the message is clear: being seen in the office shows how “committed” you are. Going to the doctor’s appointment or teacher meeting continues to be guilt-inducing, which means the most promising lower their goals or sends them out the door.

Recent studies show that where co-workers and bosses show subtle or not-so-subtle disapproval for a parent (mom or dad) who’s following through on agreements with their employers for flexible hours, a toxic environment develops for both the parents and the non-parents.

Time logged in the office as the leading measurement of employee success is ripe for a rethink. Progressive companies are focusing on results, not numbers on time sheets. Sort this out and everyone wins.

There’s a longer list. But make movement in these three key areas and you’ll nearly pass for Swedish. It’s one of the countries that prove it’s possible to change and be rewarded with a more productive, happier, healthier workforce.

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