In President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address, he emphasized that "women make up about half our workforce," but still face pay and pregnancy discrimination, as well as "Mad Men"-era workplace policies.
Interestingly, you don't have to look far to realize that many employers face difficulties with these issues, as well as holding onto their top female talent.
Of course, we know that turnover is very costly for companies, and something that employers want to get under control. In fact, research suggests that replacement costs can be up to 60 percent of an employee's annual salary.
Women typically leave because of "push" or "pull" factors. Push factors might include the perception of limited opportunities for them; a culture that does not respect them; incivility in the workplace; a lack of senior role models; perceived discrimination and unfairness; personal health issues; excessive workload; or limited rewards or recognition. Pull factors could include better job offers, more compensation, new opportunities, greater advancement, family responsibilities (elder care, child care, partner or spouse issues) that take them out of the job, career changes or switching to a new career field.
When women leave a company, they may cite family and personal considerations as the reason, but it is often other factors within the company that have convinced them to leave. Companies may not be able to regulate the "pull" factors, but they have a great deal of control over what "pushes" women to look at other alternatives.
What can employers do about it?
• Take the time to talk with all of your employees. Find out how satisfied they are with their work, with their colleagues and the company. See what they consider to be the barriers and obstacles at the company.
Many leaders will only address those employees who come to them complaining (the squeaky wheel), and yet research shows that often women will not go to their bosses. Instead of asking for more money, better assignments, etc., they will just leave. They will assume that if the boss could have done something for her, that he/she would have already done it.
• Periodically gauge the satisfaction levels of your employees. Conduct employee surveys, focus groups and exit interviews to learn more about views of your current or previous employees. Show what new changes you have implemented to deal with those issues.
• Track your personnel data. Keep metrics on how many women you hire, what percentage get promoted and the turnover rate for women vs. men. By tracking your own metrics, you can see the problem areas. Benchmark your company's results with competitor firms or those in your peer group. Based on this data, set target goals in each category.
• Train managers in best practices. Hold them accountable for the retention of women. Set a target and use their data to hold the department accountable for retention.
• Sponsor internal networking and mentoring for women. Because they are fewer in number, women, especially at senior levels, often feel isolated and without peer support. Women's networks break down this isolation and provide opportunities for mutual support, information-sharing and a voice on issues of concern. Opportunities for informal and formal mentoring also enable women to connect to more senior women in order to learn the "ropes" about the firm and career advancement.
• Provide career path flexibility. If women perceive they must make a choice between having a career or a family, they may leave. If, however, there are some options available to them so that they can have both, this may encourage them to stay.
• Address harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment can be direct or it can be subtle. Sometimes women will not speak up about it since they may assume everyone else is handling it on their own. Managers must be attuned to the culture of their employees and these subtle forms of harassment. If nothing is done, at some point, women will leave. A company's culture must be inclusive, civil and demonstrate respect to all.
• Provide developmental opportunities and manager support. Build in new opportunities for women. Often developmental assignments or manager support at critical times could have made a difference.
• Address the issue of maternity and work-life balance. Make sure to have a clear maternity policy in the benefits manuals and post answers to practical questions on the company's website. Highlight role models of working mothers in the company and offer phased-in return after leave. These are some of the most effective ways that companies can communicate their expectation that motherhood and career contribution are compatible.
In sum, as Ilene Lang, former president and chief executive of Catalyst, a nonprofit focusing on women and business issues, said: "It takes more than lip service about gender and racial inequities to change a company's culture. Organizations must commit to having candid conversations on these sensitive issues, and teach employees across all levels how to talk openly and honestly with each other about their differences."
Take the time to learn what is going on in your company, and then develop action items. Otherwise, you may come in to work one day and find out that some of your talented women are no longer there.
• Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.