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Companies Adapt Workplace to Retain Valuable Women

by Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist

The business case for retaining qualified, educated women employees is more compelling than ever—and now some savvy companies are finding ways to hold onto these valuable employees.

In 2007, women comprised 46% of the U.S. labor force, according to the Department of Labor.  However, a study by the research organization Catalyst released May 2008 shows women comprised only 24% of senior leaders in six international companies surveyed and they accounted for only 39% of pipeline leaders.

A 2005 article in Harvard Business Review cited Catalyst findings that one in three women with MBAs were not working full time compared to one in 20 for their male peers.

Industrial-organizational psychologist Dr. Ellen Ernst Kossek, a member of SIOP and a professor of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior at Michigan State University, said one of the main reasons women choose to leave work or stall their rise to leadership positions is that the growing demands of the workplace make it difficult for women to maintain a work-life balance.

With the competing demands of raising a family while also maintaining personal lives and a career, Kossek said many companies may be inadvertently pushing women away.

“It’s not necessarily as much by choice that women are leaving the work force,” she said. “I think companies still expect ideal workers who want to work as long as it takes to get the job done and work 60 hours a week…People are choosing to opt out of the workforce rather than be viewed as not being a good employee.” 

According to Dr. Erica Desrosiers, director for organizational and management development at PepsiCo, Inc., retaining these women in the workforce, especially in leadership positions, is important not only for equality but also for companies’ bottom line.

 “From a business perspective, it’s critical to not only attract women but to retain them,” Desrosiers said. “It’s partly because so much is invested in training people and also the learning curve is such that by the time we get them up to speed we can’t afford to have them leave.”

Desrosiers also mentioned the growing influence of women in the business world.

“It’s important to have women in your company, in your leadership, because so many women are in your customer and client base,” she said.

Desrosiers, a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), recently discussed companies’ initiatives to engage and retain these women during a forum at SIOP’s annual conference. The forum included representatives from Deloitte and Touche, IBM, and PepsiCo.

What is important for companies, Kossek said, is whether they choose to adapt to retain and engage women.

“I think some companies are saying, ‘This is stupid to hire the best talents and lose people four to ten years after they join the company,’” Kossek said.

Deloitte and Touche’s Mass Career Customization (MCC) program works to accomplish this by creating a “corporate lattice” that allows employees to agree on tradeoffs at work in areas such as pace, workload, and scheduling.

PepsiCo has instituted programs such as the PepsiCo Women’s Connection Web site to improve connectivity and networking and the Women’s Initiative Network to encourage life-work balance and allow women to “bring your whole self to work.”

These programs are especially helpful for women, Kossek explained, as many have the desire to integrate their lives with their work and have more flexibility in their workplace.

IBM’s Super Women’s Group works to increase women in leadership roles by providing programs with topics such as “Balancing Career and Family” and  “How to Squeeze in a Workout While Working 60 Hours a Week” to provide more support for women leaders.

While the SIOP forum focused on retaining and engaging women, Kossek and Desrosiers said the “opting out” trend also affects men and spans all age groups.

“It’s not just women,” Kossek said. “It’s men, it’s the aging workforce, it’s everybody,” Kossek said. “So companies need to come up with other ways for employees to be viewed as an ideal worker.”

Kossek and Desrosiers said they believe more companies will be willing to change in the future.

“The expert word on the street seems to be that companies are going to have to adapt and flex their cultures in order to remain competitive in terms of being able to attract top talent,” Desrosiers said. “That’s part of the reason that PepsiCo and top companies are doing it is that in order to attract top talent we need to be an employer of choice and to offer that flexibility.”