December 4 2013
I recently sat on a train next to an executive from Barclays who told me he’s trying to attract and retain more women in the C-suite. When I asked him why, he said it wasn’t to be “politically correct;” it was because so many of Barclays clients are women, and they like working with other women. Then he added: having more women in the workplace just makes the office more fun.
Barclays understands that beyond appearances, women have a lot to contribute to an office in terms of expertise, staff morale, and helping attract a diverse client base. Yet this executive also faces a serious investment problem.
Research of the accounting field finds that women make up more than 50 percent of the talent pool. But that female staff is fleeting. Barclays, like so many other consulting firms, initially attracts strong female employees, but as those women get older and start families they often drop out of the workforce. Businesses like Barclays invest a lot of resources in their employees – both in terms of salaries and intellectual capital. So when women start dropping out of the workforce it can be quite costly.
That’s why a robust sub-business has developed around retaining women in corporate America. Deloitte launched the Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women, McKinsey & Co. initiated a campaign to “bring back its moms,” Bain & Co. has a partners program to help build a stronger network of female alumni, and similar programs exist at Goldman Sachs, Booz and Company, and Boston Consulting Group . Even Barclays has a Global Diversity and Inclusion effort that focuses attention on retaining women.
And there are real and practical ways companies can and do make it easier for employees to “have it all” – telecommuting, shared jobs, flex time, and generous maternity and leave policies, for instance.
But are all these companies really just running a fool’s errand? Is it time for businesses to stop trying to engineer the workplace?
Women’s groups on the left would have you believe that social barriers – a patriarchal culture, pressure to be wives and mothers, cultural norms – drive women’s decisions and that with the right tools or incentives we can encourage women to follow the typical, male-worker’s path.
Our lawmakers and elite class echo this message. From the President who often portrays opportunity for women as lacking, to mainstream feminists like Anne Marie Slaughter, Debora Spar, or Gloria Feldt who lament that balancing a high-powered career in finance or government with family life doesn’t happen easily. The attitude is that “something needs to be fixed.”
Certainly some fields – like finance and politics – maintain the “old boys club” attitude more than others. But in spite of the Left’s “War on Women” rhetoric, women today are not held back by a sense of male dominance. The false consciousness of decades past has largely fallen by the wayside. And there is little reason to believe that women’s decisions to leave the workplace are driven by exogenous factors that ought to be corrected.
Today women are outpacing men educationally – they earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 59% of master’s degrees, and more than half of PhDs. They already compose nearly half of the workforce, and they’re not simply participating in higher numbers – women are increasingly filling jobs that require more education and greater skills. In fact, today the largest group of working women – 33% — are those with college degrees. More than half of all managers are female.
What is affecting the gender imbalance in the workplace are men’s and women’s different goals and desires. Bottom line: women have children. They want to spend time with those children. And many jobs – especially top-level CEO positions – simply can’t adequately accommodate that balance.
So the question remains: Is gender parity really a reasonable goal? Is there anything to be done? Or, have we reached a gender equilibrium that, in fact, suits most women and men?
It may be unpopular – or simply not politically fashionable to say this – but most women don’t want to be Sheryl Sandberg. And I’m certainly not the first one to admit it. In fact, the Pew Research Center recently found that if offered the choice, only 23 percent of married mothers would choose to work full-time outside of the home. What’s more, “working fathers place more importance on having a high-paying job, while working mothers are more concerned with having a flexible schedule.”
It’s not that women lose all professional aspirations once they have families; it’s that they have a different balance of priorities. For instance, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman define “the New All” in the introduction of their book Womenomics, as just “enough professional success, balanced by time and freedom.” In her book To Hell With All That, progressive author Caitlin Flanagan is less concerned about “what we have gained” so much as “what we have lost” in terms of our roles as wives and mothers. And Danielle Crittendon puts its succinctly in What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us when she describes the high-achieving female banker who has a baby: “How could she admit – to her boss, to her colleagues, to herself – that analyzing budget sheets was suddenly less compelling to her than reading Hop on Pop?”
Of course, there are women who see professional success as their primary goal. That’s a wonderful option for women to have, and young women ought to see these role models and know that there is no limit to what they can achieve if they have the talent and dedication to achieve their goals. But we should also recognize that there are many women—and it will likely remain a majority—whose equation for success will look very different. That means we should stop trying to achieve parity and instead recognize that the disparity between men and women may, in fact, be a good thing.
Most women and men are already benefitting from tremendous shifts in social norms, growing numbers of women in the workplace, changing technology and communication tools, and a relatively free economy – all of which provides workers with greater flexibility and choices in their lives. Some industries will naturally be more inclined to create a flexible work arrangement, while others will not. Let’s be honest: it’s hard to telecommute if you’re a surgeon, and we shouldn’t pretend that that represents some great societal failing.
I’m glad that Barclays, and so many other firms, are trying to retain talented women. They’ll have their work cut out for them though: many women simply have other priorities and that’s unlikely to change very much.