Although women have made much progress in reaching the leadership levels of business, such progress is disappointing and stalled.

Why is this such a stubborn issue? Why aren’t more women making it to (and staying at) the top?

The answer may lie in a deeper understanding of why women leave and of what they bring to the table.

Women now represent about half of the hiring pipeline, entry-level positions and total workforce. But at each level of management, women represent a lower percentage.

According to research from Catalyst, while women represent 47.6 percent of today’s workforce, in the Fortune 500 in 2011 they represent only 14.4 percent of executive officers, 7.6 percent of top earners and 3.2 percent of CEOs. The professions reflect the same pattern. Catalyst reports, for example, that in law firms women make up about 4 percent% of associates but only 19 percent of partners.

Where do women go between the entry and upper levels? They leave. All relevant research confirms that women have higher attrition rates than men.

Even if women don’t literally leave, they disengage, stall out or just quit climbing. “Leave” is shorthand for all of that. And, when they literally leave, few drop out of the workforce; most go to another employer or start their own businesses.

There is lots of focus on the issue. Last spring the Wall Street Journal devoted several pages of ink to the question, “Where are all the senior level women?” A new Catalyst research report shows the problem is not that women aren’t doing the right things to get promoted. Those who do still lag behind men. A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly concludes that the problem lingers because it arises from “invisible mind-sets.” I agree.

The “quit rate” of women is hardly a reason not to hire and support women. It is a reason to try to keep them. The business case for gender diversity in leadership is compelling.

Companies with a balance of men and women leaders do better on most financial measures — return on equity, return to shareholders, stock price, etc. They tap into a huge women’s market. They attract the best talent from the gender-diverse talent pipeline. Gender diversity is simply good business.

To increase retention rates of women, business leaders need to understand why women leave.

The first cause people tend to name is work-life balance, the fact that women generally spend more hours a week caring for children and aging parents. This factor is obviously real. But it is overblown.

First, not wanting to burn bridges when they depart, smart women often use the common and acceptable reason, they “want to spend more time with family,” rather than talk about other factors. Second, research shows that work-life balance becomes less tolerable when there are other factors at play.

These factors lower the engagement of women, which lowers retention and bottom line results. Both Catalyst and the Center for Work Life Policy divide the causes of women leaving the business world into “pull factors” (like family care) and “push factors,” negative elements about the work environment or job. Two major push factors involve:

  • Acceptance: Women not feeling fully valued or accepted, and
  • Advancement: Women feeling they can’t advance or succeed.

There are two drivers of these feelings:

  • The “comfort principle” and
  • An unconscious preference for how leadership and excellence look.

Neither is malicious, intentional or usually even conscious. But they create barriers for women. Making them conscious can cause barriers to fall.

The Comfort Principle

Access to informal networks is key to getting great work assignments and therefore great experience and exposure that lead to promotions. The “comfort principle” can create a barrier to full access for women. It is a natural phenomenon; we like to spend time with people like ourselves.

Speaking personally, given a choice, I’d prefer to go shopping or share a bottle of wine with my women friends than play golf or hang out in a cigar bar with men. I don’t judge men for preferring to hang out with men more than with me. Gender differences at work can create discomfort rather than comfort.

But “hanging out” enables the development of trust and relationship. The people who come to mind when we are handing out great assignment or giving our time as a mentor are naturally those with whom we are most comfortable.

We can’t (and shouldn’t) legislate away the comfort principle. What we can do is bring it to the conscious level.

Leaders can pause and monitor whether the comfort principle is influencing to whom they give assignments, whom they mentor and to whom they give a second chance when things don’t go perfectly. Then they can balance the benefit of diversity to their team and organization with their own comfort.

In other words, awareness can assure that the comfort principle doesn’t result in less access for some groups.

An Unconscious Preference

The builders of American business were primarily men. They got there first. It is natural that ideas of leadership and excellence have a more masculine than feminine flavor.

Studies show that “leadership” is associated with words that are characteristic of men more often than women. In fact, when women exhibit some of these traits, they are not favorably received. In evaluating a woman, men may find her approach unfamiliar and may judge her style rather than focus on the results she delivers.

Leaders can stop and notice whether previously unconscious preferences are influencing how they evaluate a woman. They can take the time to understand differences in masculine and feminine approaches, and the strengths and limitations of each. Then they can appreciate and value both.

Invisible Mind-Sets

Both the comfort principle and unconscious preferences are part of the “invisible mind-sets” named by McKinsey. The starting point for removing these mind-sets and the barriers they cause is awareness.

By becoming aware of the barriers and of the strengths of both masculine and feminine approaches to work, leaders can assure that women and men feel accepted and valued and feel they can succeed. The result will be higher engagement, higher retention and a better bottom line.

Business Consultant Caroline Turner, former senior vice president of Coors Brewing Company (the first woman to hold a position at that level at the company) is releasing Differences Work: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion on January 9th, 2012. In Difference Works, Turner points out how the lack of gender diversity in the workplace, particularly in the C suite, has significant impact on a business’ productivity and bottom line.

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