Companies keep telling us that, despite their best efforts, they are failing at gender diversity at senior leadership levels. We listen, knowing that their efforts, while well meaning, were doomed to fail. Then we ask “are you willing to do what it takes to fix this problem.” We are assured that they are. In fact, they claim that that they already have adopted the programs that should help women structure their careers while maintaining work/life balance. For example, they allow part-time work, they have generous maternity leave programs, they allow employees to work from home and they have on-site day care and nursing rooms.
Yet, women leave in great numbers just as they are approaching pre-leadership levels.The problem, of course, relates to women’s perceived risk of utilizing these programs to achieve work/life balance, enduring ten exceedingly stressful years at home and at work and then being passed over for senior roles. This was very apparent recently when the head of diversity for a large, global services business told me that her employer had even gone so far as to limit overseas travel and assignments for women with young children. Still, high potential women continued to leave in the same numbers as before.
When I spoke to a group of women who had left the workforce soon after promotion to the Vice President level, they gave me a consistent response, indicating that getting on the “mommy track” is a sure career-killing move. They understood that overseas travel and assignment are critical to advancement in global companies and that full-time work is essential to stay in the game at almost all companies. And, while working from home can be acceptable, it has severe limitations in limiting their access to senior leaders and customers at critical yet often unpredictable times. As one women put it bluntly: “it is just not culturally acceptable to take advantage of these programs and that will need to change before companies will break the glass ceiling.”
A recent HBR blog, Your Workplace Offers Flexibility, But Can You Really Use it? brings home this point. It cites a recent survey showing that while two-thirds of respondents work for companies that would provide flexible work arrangements if asked, 47% of the respondents are afraid that using these arrangements would hurt their chances for advancement.
It’s time to change this cultural barrier to senior level gender diversity. And who needs to take the lead? Existing senior leaders, both men and women. They need to model new behaviors, showing that using work/life balance programs is acceptable, even at the most senior levels. In fact, using these programs should be encouraged for all high potential employees. So, let’s start where the problem originates. Let’s get the senior leaders to commit to really embracing diversity and walking the talk, not just paying for programs that will derail future female leaders.