Flexibility and appreciation are key to keeping top-level women engaged

Flexibility and appreciation are key to keeping top-level women engaged


By Sylvia Edwards Davis

While companies are generally getting better at keeping their employees engaged, one type of worker may be getting overlooked: senior-level women. A study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published in October 2016 revealed that female executives in 69% of organisations have lower levels of engagement than their male counterparts.

Among employees of both sexes, the emotional commitment the employee has to the organisation typically increases with seniority. The BCG study showed that companies with high overall engagement do not have a gender gap – women and men at all levels are equally engaged. When companies don’t get engagement right, however, it is women who feel the pain disproportionately.

If women disengage, it’s often not for one single reason but rather because of the attrition caused by a host of discouraging factors and obstacles. Any sweeping policy at the top won’t work unless it’s underpinned by all the supporting elements underneath it, and companies have good reason to get it right. According to Claire Tracey, senior partner at BCG, engagement is one of the most critical indicators of a company’s success. “Companies with very high engagement scores tend to have 20% higher profitability than those companies that are experiencing disengagement,” she said.

Here are some ways companies can address the main reasons female senior-level employees feel disengaged from their work:

Express appreciation. The No. 1 factor in disengagement, according to the BCG report, is a lack of appreciation. While pay inequality can wear women down, engagement is not exclusively dependent on money. Women seek to be included in conversations and decisions about their career path and performance evaluation.

Women who work part time can feel especially undervalued, said Alison Huntington, a senior analyst at Source Global Research. In fields such as finance, where people are judged on the revenues they bring in and the projects they deliver, part-time workers often are overlooked, often pigeonholed into back-office roles that can stifle their careers, as they are not getting the same exposure as their full-time counterparts.

“Firms need to be clear if someone is working part time on how this fits into their future promotion and be a bit more sophisticated in how they rate their senior managers,” Huntington said. “There’s a cultural conundrum here because few women raise their voices to say ‘I don’t work full time. Why is my target the same as full-time employees?’ This sounds like common sense, but it’s not being done.”

Improve balance. The BCG study found that the second-most important area for female employee engagement is work/life balance. The pivotal axle in this respect is flexibility.

Chris Burke, CEO of global consulting firm Brickendon, said companies need to dismantle the dusk-till-dawn culture and provide employees with the technology and support to work flexibly. A flexible working culture has been shown to increase productivity and wellbeing and help attract and retain top talent.

Get men on board. For author Barbara Annis, CEO of Gender Intelligence Group, the key is to engage more men in the conversation.

“The culture at the top shifts, but things remain the same. Again and again, women don’t feel valued,” Annis said. “There are communication differences that are not being understood. There’s equal learning for both men and women here. Women value different things in the workplace.”

When her firm conducted a study in investment firms of men and women at the senior manager level, it asked whether the respondent wanted to become partner. Eighty-two per cent of the men said they did, but only 18% of women responded the same way. When women were asked why, they chose a response in the study that said: “I’m committed, I’ll go where I can add value.” Annis believes this sentiment is often misinterpreted as women not being ambitious. She explained that both men and women were saying the same thing, basically “yes,” but women didn’t look at the matter in such a hierarchical way.

At the senior level, the relationship between managers and employees becomes more personal as the hierarchy narrows. As employees climb the ladder, it becomes more likely that a key manager is a man, said Heather McGregor, executive dean at Edinburgh Business School, Financial Times columnist, and author of Mrs. Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Ambitious Women.

“Do men know how to manage women effectively?” McGregor said. “Very often women will become disengaged because of their immediate manager. … It always comes down to how good the key person is at managing senior women who may be at a different life stage. For example, men tend to rely on the mindset that great minds think alike. They need to embrace the new mindset [that] great minds think unlike, to appreciate that unlikeness.”

Understand communication. In the book Gender Intelligence, Annis and co-author Keith Merron suggest that companies need to gain a deep understanding of how men and women communicate differently.

“In the BCG study, in the items ‘I can use my skills and abilities,’ there’s a huge deviation between men and women,” Annis said. “This is consistent with our research. Women tend to use a different thought process in problem-solving and strategic thinking. Women use divergent thinking, and men tend to use convergent thinking. In business, convergent thinking deals with the bottom line, the next quarter, while women tend to look much longer term, at the consequences of a decision, which is a very important skill to include in a business team. That’s why it’s so important for companies to obtain the knowledge about gender intelligence. Our clients have done amazing things once they’ve gotten the knowledge.”

One business that has made a bold public commitment to gender inclusiveness is Deloitte Canada. “One of the main insights gleaned was that women were over-mentored and under-sponsored,” said Janet Lewell, managing partner, finance, for Deloitte in Canada. A sponsor, she explained, takes the added step of creating opportunities and navigating career transitions within a firm.

Keep connections. Peter Hahn, chair in banking at The London Institute of Banking and Finance, thinks the finance industry might face particular problems with keeping female senior-level workers engaged, especially when they take time away or shift to a part-time role to balance work and family demands.

“One of the challenges in our industry is how quickly anyone who takes time away can lose their currency,” he said. “For somebody dealing with markets, banks, and shareholders, it can be daunting to reintroduce themselves even after a few weeks’ absence.”

Even if women aren’t in the office every day, they have plenty to contribute, but it might be in a way that doesn’t involve day-to-day tasks. “Instead,” Huntington said, “people could become subject-matter experts and support projects on the phone or remotely, occasionally going to clients. The firm can still use their knowledge, and they can still add value and be client-facing.”

Today, creating an inclusive culture where senior female employees can thrive is a necessary commitment not just for the enrichment of the business culture, but also to add the greatest value to an organisation. Companies that fail to keep senior-level women engaged face the risks of weaker financial performance and a skewed leadership team.

Sylvia Edwards Davis is a freelance writer based in Belmont, France.