Why retaining women is employers’ next big challenge

Every year, 8th March 2023 marks International Women’s Day (IWD), a celebration of women’s achievement, and a rallying cry for the creation of a more equal and inclusive world. For employers, IWD is also an opportunity to reflect on the progress of women in the workplace, and what more can be done to support women employees.

Equal representation remains illusive

Recent years have brought progress when it comes to the representation of women in the workplace, but there’s no hiding the fact that much work remains to be done.

According to McKinsey & Company’s 2022 ‘Women in the Workplace’ study (opens a new window) on the state of women in corporate America, the majority of women continue to find themselves excluded from crucial leadership positions. Despite women occupying 48% of entry level roles across, only 1 in 4 C-suite leaders is a woman.

This discrepancy is due in part to what’s known as a ‘broken rung’ at the very first stage of the career ladder. For every 100 men who are promoted from entry level to manager, just 87 women are promoted. Once opened, this gap is impossible for women to close.

But the ‘broken rung’ isn’t the only obstacle to gender equality. As the study explains, women are also leaving their companies at the highest rate in years, and in numbers that outweigh those of their male counterparts. This is most heavily pronounced at the leadership level: for every woman director who receives a promotion, two more choose to leave.

Women are demanding more

In order to address gender inequality within the workplace, it’s important to consider the reasons why women are looking elsewhere.

Analysing those in leadership positions, the McKinsey study notes that 48% of those switching cite the opportunity to advance as the main reason for leaving their company. This is itself the result of the ‘stronger headwinds’ that women face, which prevents them from rising through the ranks.

In many companies, women experience behaviours or comments that undermine their authority, or actively discourage them from pursuing advancement. For example, women are more likely to have their judgement questioned, or be subject to concerns that parental responsibilities might interfere with their ability to perform a role.

Women leaders are also twice as likely as men to spend time on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. Because such work isn’t typically rewarded by employers, however, they’re also more likely to be overworked, and are less likely to receive recognition for their efforts. Furthermore, women often have to juggle professional responsibilities with those at home, including childcare and domestic tasks.

These themes have been brought into greater focus in recent years, due both to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the entry of new generations into the workplace.

Significantly, 58% of women under 30 say that the opportunity to advance has become more important in the last two years, while 76% report that flexibility has become a bigger priority. Likewise, supportive management, commitment to DEI, and commitment to employee wellbeing are all pull factors for young women and women leaders alike.

Gender equality has much to offer

Engaging women in the workplace is both a challenge and opportunity for employers. Women leaders are not only critical for equality, but can also bring new perspective and approaches to a business (opens a new window), including better monitoring and oversight abilities, and a willingness to invest in innovation. Invariably, this translates into improved performance.

In achieving this goal, it’s vital that employers take a holistic approach. Strategies to promote the role of women in the workplace may encompass a range of initiatives, such as flexible working guidelines, professional development and training, or women-focused recruitment strategies. Seeking out employee feedback, and tracking outcomes can also help employers to track and assess progress.

At Lockton Global People Solutions, we are conscious of what is a lingering gender imbalance within the insurance industry, and have sought to address this through the work of the Women in Lockton (WIL) Global People Solutions Committee. Focused on the promotion of gender equality and gender-specific development, the Committee has devised four key objectives:

  • Professional & Personal Development Opportunities – To provide a forum to develop and retain our first-class female talent, regardless of job or seniority through personal and professional development

  • Regional Mentoring Scheme – To provide a mentoring scheme for our female Associates to assist them with their overall development and career strategy

  • Networking & Business Development Opportunities – To provide internal and external networking and business development opportunities for our Associates and prospects and client base

  • Commitment, Communication & Engagement – To become a leading figure in the market for our commitment to developing our female talent through engagement and communication

The strategy reflects the role of women in Lockton Global People Solutions today, and our ambitions to become a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive employer. Similarly, other employers should ensure their strategies are targeted towards their specific goals and tailored initiatives capable of driving real change within their workplace.

Such initiatives may include:

  • Demonstrating commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and emphasising this across internal communications

  • Giving employees the opportunity for hybrid and remote working arrangements where possible

  • Training hiring managers to avoid unconscious biases experienced by female employees and ensuring equal opportunity

  • Ensuring promotions and rewards are determined based on measurable results to provide opportunity for advancement

  • Tailoring pension schemes and other financial wellbeing packages to cater to women’s needs, including longer life expectancies

  • Promoting shared parental responsibility through schemes such as paid paternity leave