How Can Companies Attract and Retain Female Talent?

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How Can Companies Attract and Retain Female Talent?

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How can companies attract and retain female talent? Lessons from @NextBillionCon @BSRnews

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015 - 12:00pm


There is significant data demonstrating the business case for investing in women in the workplace. For instance, a recent Credit Suisse report found that companies with greater gender diversity in senior management have higher returns on equity, higher valuations, better stock performance, and higher payouts of dividends. Gender diversity is also critical for inclusive economic growth, as Melanne Verveer, former ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues at the U.S. Department of State, reminded the audience at the Next Billion: Women and the Economy of the Future conference in Vancouver last month. “Women entering the workforce is the fastest way to great GDP growth,” she said.

At the Next Billion conference, of which BSR was a supporting partner, speakers identified three ways that leading companies are attracting and retaining women. They have policies and practices to ensure equal pay, opportunity, and treatment. They dedicate resources to invest in women, ensuring a qualified pipeline both for entry-level positions—particularly in male-dominated industries—and management-level positions across all industries. And they create a culture that actively identifies and addresses barriers for women.

Providing Equal Opportunity

Ensuring equal pay and opportunities are important contributions to address the challenge of the talent pipeline. To address the barrier of finding women with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees and experience, conference speaker Catherine Lord who is the strategy leader of IBM Analytics, said her company starts early, enrolling grade-school-age girls in STEM summer camps and identifying promising high school and university students through internships and on-campus recruiting. New female hires are invited to participate in mentorship networks, and female employees are provided leadership opportunities and executive training.

Within operations, along with transparent hiring and promotion practices, companies can focus on pay equity through transparent pay scales and by finding ways around the “men negotiate and women do not” challenge. For instance, companies have equalized starting salaries, made salaries non-negotiable, or given women more in the initial offer package to make up the potential difference.

Companies can also focus on setting targets for female representation across all levels of the organization—including supervisor, senior management, and board leadership—and develop action plans to achieve these targets. European companies that have set targets include Bayer, Ericsson, Nestlé, Rio Tinto, SAP, and Total. To increase female representation on boards, Next Billion speakers proposed that companies take a closer look at eligibility requirements, such as whether board members have to be CEOs. One solution is a board matrix with required skills (vs. titles), term limits, and targets for diverse representation.

Cultivating Women Leaders

Many companies are creating programs that champion women internally and develop their professional skills. For instance, sponsorship programs, which pair women with senior-level advocates, can increase the visibility and the likelihood that women will be groomed for management positions. IBM Analytics’ Lord said 93 percent of women at the company have a sponsor who helps push their careers forward. Mentorship programs, which are networks often of female peers (vs. executive-level sponsors), can also help women act as role models for each another.

Companies can also create programs for female employees around education, training, and professional development, such as those outlined in the Women’s Empowerment Principles. For instance, companies can invest in rotational programs across functions to ensure women have the skills and diverse experience to advance.  

Understanding Drivers for Female Employee Retention

Beyond women’s leadership program, companies can adopt policies that take into consideration common challenges of female workers—and mothers in particular. Although free, subsidized, and/or onsite childcare would be gold-standard policies, companies can also develop paid and unpaid leave policies. One financial services company in Australia offers two years of parental leave for the primary caregiver, which can be taken flexibly, rather than on a full-time basis. A conference speaker noted the importance of providing paternity leave, which incentivizes men to play a greater role in caregiving.

Another speaker, Sharon MacLeod, who is vice president of personal care at Unilever North America, shared that her company offers flexible careers, including flexible hours, working remotely, and the ability to dial-down and dial-up working hours, which is particularly critical for retaining women ages 30-40 during child-bearing years. This flexibility ensures women will not lose momentum or responsibility when they are ready to return full-time. Additionally, companies can assign a “buddy” who helps a woman on maternity leave stay connected to her professional community and ease re-entry to work.

Another interesting example was the “stay interview.” Rather than gathering an exit interview from an employee on the way out, some companies are talking to talented female employees who are at risk of leaving to understand how to accommodate and empower them.

Leading companies understand and value the benefits of attracting and retaining women in their workforces. This is critical for business success. As Chuck Jeannes, who is the CEO of Goldcorp Inc., pointed out at Next Billion, “You can’t have a successful business that ignores 50 percent of the population.” 

Keywords: Diversity & Human Resources | BSR | Business & Trade | Business for Social Responsibility | Female Talent | Human Resources | Jobs | Women In Business | Women leaders | employee retention | next billion