By Tammy Zhu • June 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
We know that women are underrepresented in senior ranks of law firms and across corporate America. In Big Law, women make up 45% of incoming associates but only 16% of equity partners. At our current rate, women will not make up 30% of equity partners until 2081. We also know that women often take themselves out of the running for advancement. In law firms, women quit at higher rates than men. In tech, women are more than twice as likely to quit than men.
Firms and companies recognize the challenge of retaining talented women and have been investing in different strategies to increase retention rates. If you were a firm or company that cared about retaining your women employees and had a budget to do so, how should you prioritize your spending to get the most bang for your buck?
Family Support and Other Forms of Flexibility
Some claim that the most important factor is to give employees more control over their schedules. For example, economists have found that the gender gap in firm and corporate leadership and pay is in large part due to the long hours and limited flexibility: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours,” and when educated mothers leave their jobs, “it’s often because they feel pushed out by inflexible employers.” According to one woman who started a job search company that negotiates flexibility for highly skilled employees, women want to be executive leaders and the “only reason they’re not getting there is they’re going through this phase in their life where working 16 hours at a single desk is incompatible with their life.”
Indeed, “temping law firms” that offer attorneys high-level legal work and a flexible schedule are attracting hundreds of highly skilled lawyers – including former Big Law associates and stay-at-home moms – who want the intellectual stimulation of challenging work combined the ability to “control my own destiny.”
Recent research by McKinsey and LeanIn.org shows that women are actually 15% less likely than men to aspire to executive leadership, but even women who do want to become a top executive are more likely than men to worry that they will not be able to manage work and family commitments.
Accordingly, some employers have invested in generous paid parental leave and other flexible-schedule, work-from-home, and parental support programs.
Non-Managerial Sources of Support and Participation in Decision-Making
Some have put their resources into providing mentoring budgets or hosting diversity conferences or setting up committees and other corporate decision-making processes involving junior employees.
While admirable and important in their own right, none of these parental programs or mentoring and diversity efforts offered by law firms to date have proven to be all that effective at retaining women, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be at our current rate of promoting women. Otherwise, women would be projected to reach 30% of equity partners way before 2081.
Training Managers to Improve Apprenticeship Experience
Here’s a program that I might shell out my wallet for. Five years ago, the consulting firm BCG poured money into training its managers to become better managers. Today, BCG has made strides in retaining and promoting women employees that I have yet to see any other firm or company claim.
The premise behind BCG’s Apprentice-in-Action (AiA) program is that a critical but often overlooked explanation for the gender disparity in their senior associate classes is the quality of the day-to-day “apprenticeship experience” between women and men associates. The apprenticeship experience refers to the working relationships between the junior team members and their more experienced colleagues.
BCG recognized that as with any other talent-driven companies, apprenticeship is how their employees develop critical skills and leadership capabilities. With that insight, BCG launched a program to enhance three aspects of the apprenticeship experience for their employees: (a) relational connectedness; (b) strengths-based development; and (c) coaching for a diversity of communication styles.
Today, five years later, BCG’s promotion rates have increased by 22% among senior women managers. Attrition rates have dropped 5% among senior women. Retention rates of mid-level women employees are now at parity with those of their male counterparts. Women employees’ satisfaction with BCG’s efforts to retain women has increased by 20% overall and by 30% for senior women.
How did BCG figure out that it needed to invest in a program to (a) improve relational connectedness; (b) employ strengths-based feedback; and (c) coach diverse communication styles? And do these same needs apply to your work environment?
First, BCG recognized that (1) given the lack of formal job descriptions or handbooks in their line of work, apprenticeship was critical to mastering the work and (2) cultivating apprenticeship was difficult in that line of work given that associates regularly jump from project to project and manager to manager.
However, in annual employee surveys, high-potential, mid-career women who left the firm gave the lowest scores around the statement “I am satisfied with the apprenticeship and feedback I received.” Women leaving BCG ranked the number one topic that the firm needs to improve on as mentorship, not work-life balance. The management qualities most valued by women were “forming a strong relationship with my manager(s)” and “having someone in leadership who cares about me and reached out long after the project ended.” In addition, women were more likely than men to feel that their work relationships were transactional.
To remedy this, the program trained managers to be more deliberate about investing in their relationships with supervisees by focusing on elements of supervision traditionally considered discretionary, such as (1) making personal connections; (2) investing in individuals’ success; (3) guiding and advising; and (4) staying in touch between projects.
Over the five-year period of the program, more employees across both genders reported “having a manager that proactively coached and developed them in their first year.” One male partner, for example, now puts check-ins with teammates on his to-do list and spends time “making sure they are meaningful conversations.”
In providing employees feedback, BCG transitioned from a development-focused to a strength-based model. The transition was spawned by feedback from a majority of BCG staff across levels and genders that BCG’s reviews focused too heavily on areas for development. In response, BCG trained managers to ground their feedback in an individual’s strengths and link each strength to an area for development, allowing employees to leverage their strengths to accelerate improvement.
For example, rather than simply encouraging someone to speak up more in meetings, highlight the person’s ability to extract insights out of analysis and encourage them to think about what insights to share at the next meeting. BCG believes that training managers to leverage employees’ strengths in the feedback process contributed to an 18% decrease in number of senior managers who felt that BCG’s feedback focused too much on development areas.
In providing feedback on effective communication in particular, BCG pioneered a training that centered on “building rapport” and “reading the room” rather than asking employees to “be more aggressive” or “take up more space,” as managers had done in the past. Problems with the previous paradigm were that (1) it adhered to male communication norms; (2) it caused certain people to feel that their communication styles “were different from that of successful BCG employees”; (3) it set certain people up to fail, for example, asking a five-foot-tall person to “take up space”; and (4) it does not account for the range of styles necessary to build connections in diverse situations and in particular effective styles that deviate from the dominant, male norms.
Since the new training, BCG has seen an 8% decrease in the number of people who report that their own communication style “is different from that of successful BCG employees.” A partner reflected that now, when she hears that a woman associate “needs to be more aggressive,” she hits the pause button and asks the room, “What if she doesn’t want to be more aggressive?”
Various research suggests that BCG’s approach for training its managers could effectively increase the retention of women beyond management consulting and across other male-dominated industries where advancement depends on the apprenticeship experience.
For example, in the tech industry, where women are more than twice as likely to quit as men, surveys show that women leave because they are “underpaid, less likely to be fast-tracked than their male colleagues, and unable to advance.” Women in tech report experiencing a lack of engagement from supervisors and receiving fewer high-visibility “stretch” assignments compared to men. They experience their ideas getting ignored until a man later makes the same suggestion. Their reviews contain more personality criticism and less actionable advice than those of their male counterparts. Their ability and desire to advance depends on the strength and approach of their apprenticeship experience. Are these women receiving challenging assignments from their supervisors? Are they getting feedback that is both useful and motivating?
They need supervisors who will invest in them and give them challenging assignments. They need managers who will give them less personality criticism and more strength-based, actionable feedback. And they higher-ups to show them that their voices are valued and their communication styles are compatible with success. Yet currently, their managers receive little to no managerial training. If I were a company or firm that cared about retaining my women employees, I would put my money in training my managers to improve the apprenticeship experience.