Catching and keeping senior women beyond the glass ceiling

by 01 Nov 2006

Getting a more balanced representation of women in top jobs is only worthwhile if they thrive, succeed and stay in their jobs once they break through the glass ceiling. Stephen Bevan reports

In recent years, many more businesses have increased the number of women filling very senior posts. This reflects more enlightened recruitment and promotion policies, a genuine desire for equality of opportunity and a need to show that boardrooms are no longer ghettos for white, middle-aged men. While there is still a long way to go before women have fully open access to the most senior roles, many observers believe that we are approaching a tipping point on the path to true meritocracy.

But before we get carried away in a frenzy of self-congratulatory backslapping, it is important to confront another issue that threatens to undermine the positive progress that has been made. Getting a more balanced representation of women in top jobs is only worthwhile if these women are also able to deliver high quality work when they get there and if they are motivated to stay once they arrive. Nothing will fuel the cynicism of the doubters more than if women in senior positions fail to perform or elect to quit prematurely.

So what can businesses do to ensure that their high-flying female executives can thrive, succeed and stay in their jobs once they’ve made it to the top of the greasy pole? How do the top employers tackle this problem and what lessons do their experiences have for other firms? Let’s try to answer these questions with reference to an example.

A globally successful investment bank had, to its credit, significantly increased the number of women in senior posts. There was concern, however, that once they had broken through the glass ceiling, they received little or no support to establish themselves in their roles or to develop their careers still further. Indeed, the early warning signs of strain and attrition were beginning to show.

A ‘health check’ was conducted on the top 250 women in the business. A simple online questionnaire was administered anonymously, which came up with a number of disturbing findings (see box). These suggested that a significant proportion of the senior women who had advanced up the career ladder in the business were unsure about whether they would stay and were concerned about whether their continuing career progression would be satisfactory.

In addition to the survey, anonymous data on resignation and promotion rates for men and women in the firm was available. This allowed a number of career progression diagrams to be generated which, among other things, showed that the chances of getting appointed to a vacant post at director level were 63 per cent for men and 10 per cent for women. Indeed, women were twice as likely to leave as get promoted.

The findings sent shockwaves through the company. It felt it had made good progress by opening up access for more women to senior positions and, perhaps, a little complacency had set in.

To its credit, the business responded with a number of imaginative initiatives aimed at improving things. This included a formal career mentoring process for senior women, opening up opportunities for cross-functional career moves to allow broadening of experience and exposure, and a series of measures to promote work-life balance. When the exercise was repeated for the company a year later, the picture had improved considerably.

There are four lessons that can be drawn from this example. First, while improving the numerical representation of women at the top of organisations is a noble objective, it is not an end in itself.

Second, career management processes can work, in subtle ways, against women. This is especially the case with succession planning and internal post-filling.

Third, simple analysis of recent patterns of promotion, retention and job movement can reveal a lot about how well an organisation’s ‘internal labour market’ is operating – and how equitable it is.

Fourth, don’t assume that women who make it to the top are unambiguously delighted once they get there. For many, the pressure to perform better than their male peers can be intense. Unless they continue to feel supported in their new roles, companies can find themselves with an uncomfortable retention problem which can make life at the top look far less appealing for the next generation of high-flying women.

Retention stats in the investment bank

- 72 per cent had thought seriously of leaving

- 53 per cent expected to stay with the firm for at least another five years

- Most important factors influencing retention (in rank order):

1. Job satisfaction/job interest

2. Recognition/feeling valued

3. Scope to extend job responsibilities

4. Working environment

5. Bonus opportunities

Those most likely to leave within five years were:

1. Less likely to have a career sponsor/mentor

2. More likely to be childless

3. More likely to be the main earner

- 34 per cent rated their career progression as slower or much slower than they expected when they joined the firm

- 55 per cent viewed career prospects with the firm as essential in keeping them

- 41 per cent disagreed that the firm actively supported their professional development

Source: The Work Foundation

Stephen Bevan is director of research at The Work Foundation in London. He is visiting Australia in late October and early November 2006. For more information about his speaking schedule, contact Kalmor Consulting on (03) 9820 0484.