The Woman-Powered Economy

There are many demographic changes taking place in the US workforce today.  Perhaps one of the most profound and personal is the rapid growth of women in the working population.  This month “The Shriver Report” is being released – a comprehensive look at the growing role of women in the world of work.   What this research tells us is that now, more than ever, women play a critical role in the success of any organization (more details here).

A few important statistics to consider:

  • This year, for the first time in history, there will be more women in the US workforce than men.
  • Today only 21% of families have a traditional “only husband employed” family structure.
  • By contrast, 22% of families now have an “only wife employed” family structure.
  • 44% of families now have both spouses working.
  • 63% of all women are now breadwinners.
  • Women now receive 52% of high school degrees, 57% of bachelor’s degrees, and 50% of professional and post-doctoral degrees.

Clearly we now exist in a “woman-powered economy.”  Yet this slow but steady change does not come easy.  The report notes that even as women have reached parity with men in employment, they still face inequities in pay and level of responsibility.   And women are still much more likely to be caregivers for children and the elderly, placing them in a difficult role between work and family.  The report notes that men, also, are taking on more responsibility for family issues – leaving both spouses caught in a balancing act between family, work, and free time.

How Employers Adapt – Family Friendly and Women-Powered is Part of Talent Management

As employers we have clearly adapted.  In the coming years organizations which succeed must be “family friendly,” offering flexible work environments, child-care, mentoring, and career development opportunities for women.  The Shriver Report shows that women are much more likely to work in “service-related” positions, roles which are demanding of time and energy.  If organizations want to succeed in the coming decades, they must build a “women-friendly” work environment to compete for talent.

Consider what some leading organizations do today.   Organizations like Deloitte have a formal career development for people who move sideways at different points in their career (the career lattice), IBM and many other employers offer flexible work hours, JetBlue empowers employees to work at home, Intel has a variety of women-friendly programs including mentoring and coaching to attract engineers and leaders, Google offers in-house day care.

Many entreprenurial startups have been addressing this market, including two I found interesting: (which focuses on women re-entering the workforce), and, a complete resource site for women professionals.

As we consider our new, integrated talent management strategies, it is now important to consider women-friendly programs which attract, develop, and support women as critical parts of our diverse workforce.

Women in Leadership – An Important Strategy for Today

One final point on this topic.   The Shriver Report discusses how the role of women in the workforce has “crept up on us.”  Many stereotypes and glass ceilings are slowly going away.  Yet despite these statements, only 15 of the Fortune 500 have women CEOs today.   Clearly have a long way to go.   If organizations are going to truly embrace the woman-powered economy we have to go beyond “family friendly” programs to build women-friendly leadership programs, succession plans, and role models into our organizations.

Mary Tyler MooreMy first view of a professional woman came from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, a story of a single woman in her 30s who becomes the executive producer of the TV station early in her career.   In this show Mary Richards has to deal with a tough, hard-edged (but lovable) boss Lou Grant.  Mary continually brings a “feminine” approach to problems, and often her boss is dumbfounded by her solutions to problems.

Today these stereotypes seem silly.  Yet women often do have different ways of dealing with people, managing projects, and working in teams.   One research report shows that while men may have 1 or 2 mentors in their career, women can have dozens.  As our “women-powered economy” grows we must consider new approaches to leadership which enable women to succeed.

By the way, the implications of not managing women in leadership can hurt:  a recent study by Families and Work showed that among more than 4,500 managers and executives in Europe, 51% of women were at risk of leaving their employers vs. 46% of men (there were no significant differences on where each gender was planning to go).  The cost of this attrition is clearly very high.

The Families and Work study concluded that the four major barriers to career advancement among this population were:

  • Lack of access to sponsors, champions, and mentors
  • Limited knowledge of company politics
  • Few role models, and
  • Limited access to job opportunities.

The research shows that once a woman reaches the senior executive level these challenges diminish – but those in the leadership pipeline (particularly women over 30) face all four challenges consistently.  Interestingly, the research shows that these problems are more acutely felt in Latin and Germanic countries.

Talent Management Practices that Matter

If your organization is ready to deal with this issue, our preliminary research shows that there are several practices to consider:

  • A commitment to talent diversity by gender as well as other factors
  • Accountability for talent diversity by upper management as well as line managers
  • Fair and equitable work assignments and developmental opportunities
  • Fair and equitable promotion decisions
  • A culture and process for constructive and open feedback
  • Flexibility in work environment
  • A focus on managers as a supportive coach.

What does the Woman-Powered Economy Mean to Your Organization?  And your Talent Management Strategy?

We are in the final stages of planning our 2010 research calendar, and I believe this topic belongs on the list.   We are interested in your comments:  how well does your organization understand and embrace the changing nature of the workforce?  What are some of the unique ways you drive performance, innovation, quality, and leadership among women and younger workers?   How “family friendly” is your organization today?  And how do you believe your organization will be able to take advantage of the Women-Powered economy in the coming decade?

I look forward to your comments and feedback.