How can businesses attract and retain female talent?  Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, discusses the issues. 

City employers attract some of the brightest talent in the UK. Yet despite the considerable investment employers make to ensure women are equally represented in their graduate intake and then nurtured through their early careers, the number of women progressing to senior positions among City employers remains stubbornly low.

Just how low was revealed in a 2015 study by the Financial Times which found that among the top City employers, only one in five women filled senior roles.  Among banks and the big four professional services firms women held just 16% of Managing Director and Partner positions. 

The consequences of this gender imbalance aren’t just a problem for women. They stop City firms from performing as well as they could or should. Recent research from Morgan Stanley provided fresh evidence in this area in a study which showed gender diverse companies outperform their peers in terms of higher financial performance and lower volatility.

Women recalibrate their career expectations very early on

So in the face of the all the efforts to solve the diversity problem what is going wrong? To find out we conducted research among 651 female city workers aged between 21 and 35 years old to better understand the drivers behind women’s decision-making about their careers.

What we found is that women were making decisions about the compatibility of motherhood with work much earlier on in their careers than we had anticipated.

The absence of women in senior positions is not simply down to a lack of supportive policy but a perception that in many organisations, the nature of female role models, the culture and expectations around the way women will work are out of step with what women really want as a mother and employee.

Critically, these factors come into play right at the opening stages of a woman’s career, shaping their view of parenthood in the workplace much earlier than when they choose to have a family.

Flex in the City

The research also contained clear signals to employers about what they can do to change the status quo for the better.

The two main themes that emerged were the importance of flexible working and the need for role models that better represent the type of lives they want to lead.

The requirement for flexibility goes way beyond the flexible working policies that employers have reluctantly granted.  And I use the term “granted” deliberately. The problem is a tendency among baby boomers to consider flexible working as a special favour that they dispense to returning mothers. They feel compelled to grant it but find it a big “ask” given their own route up through their careers where they sacrificed a lot on the personal front to get where they are. When you contrast that with the attitude of Gen Yers who don’t have an appetite to sacrifice all in the name of their career and you really do have a generation gap. As one respondent put it: “I’ve seen what the lives of senior management are like - they don’t have them.”

These young women, and men, want autonomy as much as flexibility. They are not work-shy at all but rather they see the inequity in their firm having “one way” flexibility. Their employers want them at their desks for long days and then on the end of a smart phone during down time and even in holiday time.

And the women eschew traditional female role models that have managed to battle their way to the top at the expense of a rich personal life and actually find some of them off-putting. And so they leave.

Relevant Role Models

The issue of role models is also critical for employers to engage with. Our research showed that nearly 80% of respondents looked up to those women one or two levels above them to take their cue as to how to navigate being a mother and hang onto their career.

The most admired characteristic in senior female role models was the ability to balance their lives. This came before the characteristics of being happy and confident, hard working and inspiring. Interestingly this was different from what they admired in male role models.  As one young woman put it: “Senior women should be making a difference to the way things are done at work.”

What this means is that companies need to rethink what makes a good role model. When companies look around to showcase their female talent it is not untypical to go for the ones that have “made it”.

Experience of talking to young women suggests these are often not the right role models. These are individuals who might encourage young women to delegate childcare and housework or adopt gruelling schedules to keep it all “in balance”. A timetable which features nannies, gym visits and long days at work is anathema to many young people today. This a generation which prefers to concoct a smorgasbord of childcare which involves both themselves and, increasingly, their partners and grandparents to provide as much personal care as possible within the demands of their busy jobs.

Much better to showcase those returning mothers that are working flexibly and do it in a way that younger women can relate to. Often clients tell me that it’s hard to find suitable role models among their returning mothers. They are too stressed or unhappy or chronically time-poor. That in itself should be an alarm bell for the company.  If a company’s returning mothers can’t find something positive to say about working there as a parent, then the business will continue to lose young talented women, and increasingly, men too.

What else can organisations do to future-proof their workforce?

A final area organisations need to consider is that of culture change in order to make family-friendly policy work effectively.  This should involve educating managers around why female talent matters to the business, how to approach conversations with women planning a family and returning to work. 

Fathers have a critical role to play too.  The career choices women make are done so in conjunction with their partners.  If it is only financially feasible for women to take paid leave off work then couples will continue to split care-giving and bread winning down gender lines.  Organisations must help fathers take on greater care responsibilities for their family by not only offering but also encouraging take-up of Shared Parental Leave.   

Does your organisation have the right network to grow the business?

Another way of looking at the problem is to consider the impact of doing nothing. I was struck recently by the cynicism expressed by young female lawyers questioning whether Partners truly felt any desire or urgency to retain them once they had children.  They argued that losing associates is desirable churn built into a system that suits Partners.

If we accept some degree of churn is desirable how can an organisation be sure it is losing the right people?  What if the wrong people are staying and the talented ones are leaving?  Maybe the ones that leave are the more opportunistic ones, the ones that have broad friendship groups, the sociable ones who are steadily cultivating a network that bears fruit later in life?

High churn amongst your up and coming women cuts off at the roots networks essential to growing a business. Female networks matter because significant buyers of the business are also female. 

Employers need to intervene early with career development programmes targeted at younger women like our Accelerate programme which establishes an ongoing dialogue between female lawyers and their employer to understand how the organisation can adapt to better meet their needs.  If this conversation doesn’t take place, young women, and increasingly young men, will continue to leave in depressingly high numbers.

This is the first in our two part series on female talent. 

Part Two: "Why it's time to reframe the maternity debate"


 By Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director, Executive Coaching Consultancy.



What do you think is the key to attracting and retaining female talent? Do you have any experiences to share on this topic? Leave your comments in the box below.

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