How to get your women back

Businesses need women and women want to work. So what’s the problem? By Elaine Aarons

The character of Lynette in Channel 4’s Desperate Housewives will strike a chord for many women in the legal profession. Why did this highly qualified woman give up her successful career to stay at home and look after the children? It is a dilemma faced by working women all over the country: is it really possible to combine a career with a successful family life?

The Hidden Brain Drain, a taskforce led by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and made up of 19 global corporations, was recently launched in the UK to look into how businesses can nurture and retain highly qualified and talented women and minorities.

The demographics make the problems clear. The workforce is shrinking due to falling birth rates and the baby boomers nearing the end of their careers. Talent will be harder to come by and retaining and promoting women and minorities will become a business imperative.

The legal profession has been highlighted as one of the culprits for this so-called female ‘brain drain’. When the taskforce was launched in the US, it discovered that women who chose to work part time in professional services firms were often removed from the partnership track and were stereotyped as being ‘not up to the job’ if they had children. Part-time in-house lawyers sometimes, but not always, fared better.

A study by the taskforce, published this month in the Harvard Business Review, shows that many professional women in the US do not drop out of their careers altogether, but they do take breaks. However, they often find it difficult to re-enter the workforce. This has been called ‘off-ramping’ (taking time out of a career for one reason or another) and ‘on-ramping’ (rejoining the career path). Women in the US, on average, spend a relatively short amount of time off-ramped (around 2.2 years), but even this can incur financial penalties. Women who spend around three years off-ramp see their earning power decrease by 37 per cent.

Tellingly, 95 per cent of women who want to return to work do not want to return to their old employer. This rises to 100 per cent in the business and financial sector. Yet only 74 per cent of off-rampers succeed in rejoining the workforce and only 40 per cent return to full-time jobs. The organisations for which they worked are clearly missing out: having trained them and identified who among them are truly outstanding performers, no efforts are made to keep in touch and give them a way back as and when they choose to resume their careers.

So how can businesses support the progress of women to leadership? In the past three years, the Government has introduced family-friendly legislation that enables parents to work more flexibly, and more is promised. However, legislation alone will not redefine the pathways to power. As long as success is dependent on the hours put in during the 10-year post-qualification period, nothing will change. Enlightened employers in other sectors have identified this and are acting on it. Being part of the taskforce has enabled Eversheds to glean best practice, much of it imaginative and yet strikingly simple, and share this with clients to help explore ways they might seek to attract and retain talented employees. Diversity is gaining increasing importance on the corporate agenda and levels of interest in the taskforce’s work is high.

Employers need to give ambitious women the scope to fulfil their potential. What the taskforce study has shown is that women are needed and also want to stay in the workplace. Now it is up to businesses to allow it to happen.

Elaine Aarons is an employment partner at Eversheds, which is a member of the Hidden Brain Drain taskforce.