The Impending Female Brain Drain

Recently, articles have appeared all over the Internet demonstrating that it makes good sense to have women share the top leadership roles with men in most organizations.

According to analysts in both the United States and Europe, the more women in a company’s senior management team, the less its share price fell in 2008/09. In another study spanning 19 years, Pepperdine University found that Fortune 500 companies with the best record of promoting women outperformed their competitors by anywhere from 41 to 116 percent. McKinsey also did a global study that showed a significant difference in the financial performance of companies that have women in at least a third of the senior management positions.

Women leaders mean good business.

We know that women still lag behind men in advancement and compensation. The Harvard Business Review found women representing just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 15% of corporate executives at top companies worldwide.

Many feel that these dismal numbers reflect a need to force the issue. Northern European countries are requiring quotas to put women in the boardroom. Finland demands that CEO’s publicly explain why they lack women at the top if the numbers are low.

From my research, I don’t think quotas or public humiliation will solve the problem. They may open doors that should have been opened a long time ago. They could give women a chance to change the system once they are in positions of power.

However, the truth is that many women opt out themselves, either choosing to stay in positions below the glass ceiling or not staying long enough in one company to earn a top spot. It is likely that a good majority of high-achieving women in organizations today have their resumes ready to use once the economy turns around and job opportunities increase. Either they will job hop or they will hop off the ladder all together and start their own businesses.

Either way, I predict the female brain drain will be a huge problem for most organizations by the end of the year. Either leaders work to engage their top female employees today or they will be struggling to engage them tomorrow.

The problem lies in how organizations both 1) develop women and 2) create corporate cultures that appeal to top female performers. Here are some ideas to share with your company’s leaders from my new book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction:

1. Make sure women are appropriately developed. A 2009 study of 376 organizations found that 50 percent more men get special attention than women, including mentoring and attending “high-potential programs.” Women are quicker to look for another job than men when they feel frustrated and under-appreciated. If companies want to keep their best female performers in the pipeline, they should look at how they develop women early on.

Also, provide women with a chance to network and give them coaching to help them navigate through an environment that doesn’t always appreciate their leadership styles. Give them the right tools and they will rise to the challenge.

2. Develop the culture, too. Most leaders do not know how to manage high-achieving women. I’m not talking about a woman’s need to juggle family and work responsibilities, though both men and women have this issue. I’m talking about what high-achieving women need even more than men to fully commit to their work.

In their words, this is what women want at work. This may also be true for many men, especially the younger generations, but it is strikingly true for smart, strong women.

Help us see how our work is meaningful. Even if our products are not that meaningful in the bigger scheme of life, we want to work for companies that care for their employees, respect the environment and support their local communities. We struggle with committing to a monetary goal or a drive solely focused on beating our competitors. We will align our energies with your penchant for profit when we can see the evidence of our good work in the world.

Continually affirm our contribution and value. We need to know how well we did in relation to the people we touch, including our peers and our customers. It’s not enough for us to know we have great knowledge and ability. We need to know that our contribution made an impact.

Give us frequent, new challenges. We love to learn and to apply ourselves to resolving new, complex challenges. Never assume our outside responsibilities will get in the way of a demanding new task. Let us make that decision. Then work with us on creating flexible work schedules. We abhor the “who can stay the latest” contests.

Design and foster a creative and collaborative environment. We love to work for leaders that create environments with an open flow of communications. Organizations are flatter today; let us help you design how work gets done by engaging everyone in the process instead of working through hierarchies.

Helping women climb the corporate ladder makes good business sense. Engage your female talent today before you lose them tomorrow.

If you are a woman working in an organization that mismanages high-achieving women, there’s a letter you can copy and send to your CEO at in the top right corner. Feel free to forward the document to any executive who would benefit from the message, or copy and customize the letter to fit your communication style and the needs of your organization.

Adapted from Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.
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