Women Leaving the Top: Canaries in the Coal Mine?

I am quoted and used as an example in Arianna Huffington’s new book, Thrive – to make the point that women often get off the corporate ladder for reasons other than raising children. Women sometimes do not feel valued in a culture that models and more highly values masculine attributes. That can reduce engagement and enjoyment. Huffington’s mission is to change the workplace for women and men, to make it healthier and more sustainable. Women are perhaps the “canaries in the coal mine,” the first to signal that the workplace is toxic and must change.

A Business Approach to Diversity

While diversity is “the right thing to do,” it will get more support if it is also good for business. A business approach to diversity includes: (1) it is based on facts; (2) there is a strong business case; (3) it is expressed in non-judgmental terms. For example, an initiative to improve gender diversity will be based on where women are represented, turnover rates and levels of measurable engagement. The business case for gender diversity must be spelled out. And root causes for not having gender diversity must be expressed so men aren’t put on the defensive.

What Women Must Do to Get to the Top: Walk a Tight Rope and Chew Gum

I usually focus on what leaders can do to create inclusive cultures and achieve gender diversity in leadership. Women themselves can do things to improve their odds of reaching the top. To be seen as leaders, be heard and get credit for accomplishments they must do some “masculine” things–speak up, act confident, take risks, ask for what they want, toot their horns. But if they act “too” masculine, they will be caught in the double bind. Avoiding the double bind while demonstrating leadership can be like walking a tightrope and chewing gum!

Flexible Work Schedules: A Demand of More of the Workforce

MUCH of the workforce will respond positively to changes suggested in Anne Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Addressing the difficulty of working a demanding job and having a family, she suggest “changing the culture of face time.” This is more than a women’s issue; it is a generational issue affecting large sectors of the workforce. Members of Generation X and Millennials “want a life.” Leaders who address the need for more flexible work schedules will see improved engagement and retention; those who don’t will see disengagement and turnover.

Diversity and Inclusion: Sustaining Gender Diversity

Diversity in the workplace is unlikely to be either successful or sustainable if the culture isn’t inclusive. Inclusion is about how people experience the workplace. It is inclusive if as many people as possible feel valued, sense they belong and feel they can succeed. I suggest practicing inclusion on one group, women, who remain “minorities” at the upper levels of business. Leaders should determine if there is gender diversity or if retention and promotion of women is an issue. Study the numbers, turnover rates, engagement and causes of women’s disengagement.

What Causes the Pyramid Problem?

There is a compelling business case for gender diversity and inclusion. Yet women still aren’t proportionally represented at higher levels of business. Where do they go? They go to another employer, disengage and quit climbing or start their own businesses. The causes are both “push factors” and “pull factors.” While women’s role in the family is an important push factor, businesses should focus on push factors, including “invisible mind-sets” that cause women to disengage or leave. The root causes of these push factors are the “comfort principle” and “unconscious preferences.” Understanding the causes of disengagement can enable the solution, which includes bringing to conscious awareness those invisible mind-sets.