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Next month I will lead a program for my law school alma mater and the local bar association on the topic of why women leave the practice of law. Professional service firms and businesses in general show the same pattern: the turnover rate for women is higher than that for men. In the program we will go through:

  • What’s the problem (the data showing that women leave at a faster rate than men),
  • Why you should care (the business case for increasing retention),
  • Why women leave (the “push” and “pull” factors that underlie the turnover issue), and
  • What you/your organization can do about it (best practices for increasing retention).

To design solutions, you need first to understand causes of a turnover problem. Two major causes are:

  • “Work/life” issues—a “pull factor” and
  • The absence of an inclusive culture—a “push factor.”

The challenge of balancing family demands is a big one, and it is no longer just a “women’s issue.” Members of Generation X share parenting duties and value life/work balance far more than their Baby Boomer parents. Millennials want the flexibility to work more fluidly and virtually. As a result, the demand for flexibility is now a chorus, and smart businesses are figuring out ways to offer flexible schedules.

The second issue is harder to solve. It requires creating an environment where women as well as men feel a sense of “belonging”—i.e., feel valued, included and heard. Women often report feeling less so. And they report feeling they have less access to the informal networks that lead to good work assignments, sponsorships, mentoring and client exposure—all of which affect promotions and compensation. Why? Often men see this as a “perception” issue. It feels very real to many women.

Lack of inclusiveness is almost never malicious or intentional. It comes from unconscious, unintentional ways of seeing the world. The work world tends to value masculine ways of doing things and leading. Women who use a feminine approach may be and feel less valued. And women who use a masculine approach are often caught in a double bind. See my blog of March 14, about the balancing act required for women to succeed. Organizations that want to engage and retain women need to understand and value the strengths of the feminine approach. And they need to value women as well as men based on results—not whether they operate in a feminine or masculine way. In organizations that master this, more women will feel engaged—and want to stay. The business case says the payoff is well worth the effort.