Flexible working: silver bullet for female retention?

Flexible working is only one of the ingredients needed for female success, says author Inge Woudstra. Gender smart line managers and organisations that understand different ways of working are also vital.

4160817135_fe91603d81_oMany employers still report difficulties with attracting, retaining and promoting women because they struggle to fit their roles around childcare. Even if you have everything in place, employers find that women still leave. This suggests flexible working alone is not enough, but what more can be needed?

Why women leave

Barbara Annis, a leading gender intelligence expert, and co-author of Work with Me, conducted in-depth interviews with 2,400 women who left their leadership positions in Fortune 500 industries across the Americas, Europe and Asia. She uncovered the top five reasons why women are quitting.

Indeed 30% of women said that they leave due to work vs. personal life issues, which is of course related to flexible working. However the top four reasons for leaving (mentioned by 55-68% of women) were: lack of opportunity for advancement, male-dominated environment, feeling excluded from teams or decisions, and not being valued in the workplace. Clearly many women feel unhappy and disengaged at work.

Organisations designed for men

The explanation is simple: organisations are designed for men. The systems, style, and culture in organisations tend to work well for men, but don’t work as well for most women. Asking women to be successful in an organisation designed for men is like asking a fish to climb a tree.

Creating a flexible working culture is a good start, as it does create an organisation that is more suitable to the needs of modern women. However it is just the beginning. Flexible working is only the first level of creating an organisation that works for both men and women.

Gender smart line managers

Research in psychology, biology and neuroscience from the past decades, shows that men and women are motivated and inspired differently. Line managers need to be aware of those differences and learn to flex their style so it works for men as well as women.

Top sports coaches are already aware of this. Coaches of female teams have had to learn over the years that they need to adapt their style to what women need to perform.

Some of the key behaviours coaches need to learn when coaching female teams:

  • encourage and nurture, rather than challenge and provoke
  • give feedback on process as well as end-results
  • coach on playing individually, rather than focussing on playing as a team

Coaches learn to flex their style to what works for women and create an environment that allows for optimal performance. Rather than asking women to climb a tree, they give them a lake. Organisations will need to train their line managers to do the same.

Recognising added value of women

Men and women don’t just differ on what they need from their managers; they also tend to work in different ways. They can achieve the same, but often will use a different approach to reach that result. Women tend to have a different working style, take decisions differently and pick up different signals.

For instance, when taking decisions men tend to focus on data and facts. Women often have more of a focus on people. They ask others what happened previously and look for best practices. Data and facts are well-recognised as valid sources of input for a decision. In contrast, experiences of others and stories are often put aside as soft, less reliable and less important. Yet, in a good decision hard and soft factors are just as important and ensuring both are taken into account can be vital for a successful outcome.

The style of men and women complements each other, and it is important that organisations learn to recognise the value that women bring to the table too.

When managers recognise what men and women bring and flex their style to encourage best performance, women will gain confidence in their capabilities. They will start to feel valued, and see more opportunities for promotion. It’s not easy, but when organisations become more gender smart the benefits are endless.

Inge Woudstra

Inge Woudstra is author of Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women

Main image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/

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