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By Susan S. LaMotte
October 27, 2014
IDEAS
Susan S. LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo, which helps organizations build cultures, create employer brands and develop talent strategies using a data-driven approach.

Women aspire to success: they earn 60% of college degrees and hold 52% of professional-level jobs. Yet, we’ve heard the same concerns over and over. Why are less than 15% of Fortune 500 executive positions held by women? Only 32% of lawyers are women, and they comprise only 36% of MBA-earners. And let’s not even talk about the wage gap–it’s been written about by everyone from Forbes to the New York Times, with little progress and lots of debate. The statistics on women in the workplace aren’t shocking anymore and the arguments and struggles aren’t new.

Yet from our clients’ struggles to the media’s relentless focus, the question remains: How do we hire and advance more women in the workplace?

The hypotheses and assumptions abound. For many women it’s a question of wanting to be at home (or have at least one parent be at home) to focus on raising children. For others it’s a question of cost: paying nannies or child care providers to shuttle kids to ballet and soccer doesn’t make sense.

But what do we really know about the women in our workplaces? Understanding their struggles, frustrations and the late night “how do we manage this?” conversations with partners and spouses may be something peers pay attention to. But management doesn’t. And this is the problem.

One married mom of twins I spoke to who works in finance for a well-known Fortune 100 company was offered a promotion to move from one division of finance to another, directly supporting the CFO. She had no choice but to turn down the role. Her husband has a full-time job too and her supporting the CFO would mean on-call problem solving at all hours of the day and evening–untenable when there are kids to feed and bathe at home.

Another gave up her lucrative job in law for eight years to raise her kids, and now that she’s back working has to answer to her pre-teen son who complained it was hard to get used to his mom being so busy.

These stories are anecdotes and there are thousands more just like them. But when we generalize, assume and build strategies around those assumptions, we fail. And this is why companies continue to struggle with hiring and advancing women.

Leaders just don’t understand the real, frontline issues in their own workplaces.

During a recent workforce analysis project, I presented some specific data to a CEO and a Chief Human Resource Officer showing the challenges their employees–men and women–were facing. One major issue had to do with getting out of work on time. Their employees were struggling with a combination of the office location/commuting issues and picking their children up from day care. Both men were shocked when I shared that each parent had to pay late fees each for minute they were late to pick up their kids. These leaders had no idea.

And how could they? This particular management team averaged over 50 years old, and those who had children had full-time childcare or a spouse at home to take care of them. Most employees won’t tell their C-suite bosses, “If I don’t leave now, I’ll probably have to pay $35 because I’ll be late to daycare.”

When leaders don’t live the issues or attempt to understand them, they can’t solve them.

Memo to the C-suite: It’s time to start understanding what’s behind the problems women are facing in your own organizations.

  • Stop with the assumptions

Instead of making assumptions or paying attention to broad sweeping trends, why aren’t leaders collecting their own data? It shouldn’t be about what the media tells leaders women want. Instead, leaders should look to their own unique workforces to see what their specific issues are. And if you’re sitting in a coveted C-suite role as a working parent, don’t assume your issues and story replicate others’ issues. They won’t–as a C-suite leader you’re no longer a representative sample.

  • Collect real data

Go beyond broad satisfaction and engagement ratings and ask specific pointed questions of your workforce to see what their real struggles are day to day. Late-night work calls and emails? Family leave policies? Equal pay? You won’t know what problems are most prevalent or what solutions work best for your workforce until you go directly to the source. Then segment that data to find patterns among different functions, levels, geographies and teams.

  • Blend qualitative and quantitative data

Let’s say you already know that the majority of your female employees want more flexible schedules. Great. Now go find out why by collecting qualitative data. The combination of survey data plus deep focus group and interview insights will help your leadership team understand the core issues. It may be childcare is at the root cause or it may be a greater desire for schedule control. You won’t know until you dig in and ask.

  • Forget the broad sweeping initiatives

It’s great to see nationwide movements, surveys and polls. But they won’t impact your specific organization alone. Only the C-suite can do that. Leaders are the ones who have to understand their own microcosms and make pointed changes specific to their own workforces.

When we engage, research and really understand our stakeholders–in this case women–we can more effectively address their frustrations and problems. For example, the female finance leader from the Fortune 100 company? She’s not just limited by her two young children. She’s also stuck on why the work has to be done at the last minute or at the CFO’s whim. She wonders what other leaders do about spending time with their kids.

The mom who has to have a conversation with her son about transitioning from staying at home to working again? The change at home is only one piece of the puzzle. She may really need resources at work to help her with making the change.

And it’s not just parental issues. Women without children have their own set of important issues and concerns. But it’s up to leaders to listen and learn what those are–and know that they differ by company, function, geography and even team.

I’ll never forget the lecture I got as a rising leader in a Fortune 500 company. It was 9:15 a.m. and an executive needed something from my team. I was nowhere to be found, and my small team hadn’t made it into the office yet either. My management style wasn’t a strict “must be at your desk by 9:00 a.m.” As long as my team got their work done and respected their peers, I didn’t care whether they started their day at 9:00 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. But that executive did. And as I listened to the lecture about setting a good example I thought to myself, “No one ever asks why.”

Susan S. LaMotte is the founder ofexaqueo (ex-ACK-wee-o), which helps organizations build cultures, create employer brands and develop talent strategies using a data-driven approach. Susan has an MBA (Vanderbilt University), an MA in HR Development (The George Washington University) and a BA in Communications (Virginia Tech). She has also written two books: The Right Job, Right Now (St. Martin’s Press) andVault Guide to Human Resources Careers.

Write to Susan S. LaMotte at susan@exaqueo.com.

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