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Sep 27, 2017

It is no secret that there is a gender issue in business. Women continue to be vastly underrepresented in the workforce, especially when holding leadership positions. According to research from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. for every 100 U.S. women promoted to manager, 130 men are promoted – leaving far fewer opportunities for women to be on the path to leadership without the access and avenues for growth to accelerate their careers. As a result, only 14% of U.S. women serve on executive committees and only 3% serve as CEOs, according to research from McKinsey & Co.

Several of these recent studies have shed light on this industry-wide problem, prompting organizations to restructure their recruiting and hiring practices to increase women in the workforce. However, one area that is often given less focus is retention – understanding the reasons why women are leaving by career levels. For women who have “shattered the glass ceiling,” are the reasons the same as those starting out in their careers?

The more we talk about the lack of female leaders, the more competitive the market gets for them. Organizations will continue to be a revolving door for female employees unless HR managers prioritize and offer programs and initiatives to retain these employees throughout their career. The generational influences become a major factor in the retention of employees, requiring organizations to think about best practices as employees grow their career with one organization.

Different needs at different stages

Take for example, a young female employee entering the workforce. After several years, as she reaches her mid- to late 20s, she may be faced with a series of life events (marriage, pregnancy, childcare decisions, etc.), creating a crossroads between her personal and professional lives. Does she need greater flexibility? Does she need a role that provides less travel?

And it does not stop there. Think about Generation X, sometimes called the “sandwich generation” – those individuals who are not only raising families but also caring for elder adults. And for those that have made it through the glass ceiling, perhaps they desire greater career development opportunities. When openings at the top are few and far between, is your organization prepared to offer both conventional and non-conventional career development options?

For companies that do not identify and create ways to support their female workforce throughout these stages, they will face the consequences of declining female retention rates – especially as the competition increases for executive women. And I will point out that while we focus on women, there is increasing desire from men as well for work flexibility.

To combat this problem, here are three considerations to retain flourishing female employees no matter their stage in life:

Three steps to improve retention

1. Enable flexibility in the workforce

Returning to work after a life milestone can be an extremely hard decision. For me, after returning to work, I found myself overwhelmed juggling my career and being a mother. I clearly remember feeling the increased stress when rushing from work to pick my children up from daycare, especially if I was running late. I knew I needed to find balance to keep from repeating this scenario day after day.

Allowing flexible work options that follow the “impact, not presence” theme will attract female employees facing this same problem, and many others. Enabling flexible work environments gives female (and men for that matter) employees the opportunity to align their work and personal lives to be able to juggle picking up their kids after school or attending after-school activities, or even taking a parent to the doctor.

And although there are some companies actually taking away remote work options, research proves this is also great for an organization’s workforce. According to a study from Boston College, 90% of people believe that that having access to flexible work options contributes to their overall quality of life to a “moderate” or “great extent.” By giving women the flexibility they need to balance their professional and personal lives, they will not be forced to choose a home life versus a working life.

2. Create collaborative employee groups

Organizations should not understate the importance of creating and promoting employee network groups. This creates a community for employees who are going through similar experiences (both work and personal) to share best practices, hardships and advice. This does not have to be time intensive – meet for coffee, over lunch or during a quick 15 to 30-minute conversation. Especially for women who might have apprehensions about re-entering the workforce, positive affirmation through employee network groups can help ease the transition.

When I came back to work after my first maternity leave, I had to understand my own expectations on career and family, and in some cases, I needed to reset expectations at work. Things were different now and they would not work within the confines of my old boundaries.

At SAP, we host a monthly, “Women’s Professional Growth” webcast series which has reached close to 14,000 people in more than 43 countries. This has helped our employees, no matter their location, to benefit from leading experts. They share inspirational stories, helping feel more connected to colleagues around the globe who are often facing similar challenges and obstacles. The series has become so popular that we now open it to our customers on a quarterly basis. If you are interested in joining, simply join our talent community where you will be notified of all future sessions.

3. Create fluidity throughout the organization

In order to retain and recruit women, organizations should focus on offering individuals the opportunities to move throughout the company and into positions that leverage their skills, enable development and offer new opportunities which interest and inspire them.

The Harvard Business Review says 17% of women leave the “fast lane” of their career because work is not enjoyable or satisfying. To avoid losing this talent, organizations should give women the opportunity (and support) to switch their focus areas and, as I like to say, “feed their soul.”

Over four years ago I took a leap of faith and derailed my career plan to focus on gender diversity at SAP. While this was not something I considered previously, the company and hiring manager took a chance on me and have supported me along this journey, marrying my passion and skills together. By giving women this opportunity, organizations will benefit from a more engaged, productive workforce.

Understanding and recognizing the importance of retention, and the needs that align to a woman’s career, should be a key part of every organization’s HR strategy. By giving women re-entering the workforce the proper tools and support to feel inspired, supported and challenged everyday, organizations will see the retention and career movement of women increase, while simultaneously creating an inclusive environment which attracts more applicants, enhances your existing employees’ experience, which ultimately result in a positive impact for the business.