October 15, 2008

Why a women-friendly workplace means more than just family-friendly policies

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 12:42 pm

We were sitting in a country residence in southern Germany, peer-bonding. It was a spring evening: warm, full of promise. (The Internet bubble had yet to burst.) The conversation turned, as if steered by an invisible hand, to company cars. Ah! The allure of the new. And yet not so new: we had been on our company’s training programme for baby strategists for more than a month, and the topic had yet to lose its lustre. Was a Mercedes better than a BMW? What were the merits of the BMW Series 3 over the Audi A4? (There followed a detailed excursus concerning the position of the armrest.)

Marissa, one of the other five women in our cohort of thirty-six, made eye contact with me. “I’m getting a Golf,” she said with an air of finality. We stood up, and left the table.

So often, companies adopt family-friendly programmes – flexitime, parental leave – in an effort to attract and retain talented women. And those programmes are important. But creating a women-friendly workplace is about much more than that.

Our blue-chip strategy firm, to give it credit, scratched its head over why women made up only 15% of its incoming class. But where it and its industry peers go wrong is in thinking that a good pregnancy policy is enough. It’s not. It’s not even half the battle. For starters, one commonly-cited statistic says that 40% of German women university graduates never have children. That’s two-fifths of the consulting workforce for whom a family policy is irrelevant.

We suffocate at restaurant tables where the air is thick with cigar smoke (according to Cigar Aficionado, women make up less than 5% of cigar smokers, but you’ll see a lot of cigars when consulting managers get together). We care about our Lufthansa Senator cards (hey, if you wanted the last place on the Thursday 19:35 flight to Frankfurt, you’d want those red leather luggage tags as well), but we don’t much mind about whose hood ornament adorns our cars. And a watch? It’s what you use to tell the time. Quite how men manage to get so much conversational mileage out of cars and watches is a mystery to us.

Most women (like most men) left my firm, but we left in greater proportion. As I watched us fly out through the gates of institutional memory, I decided that we were leaving because we had never felt we belonged. In this context, it was interesting to read a recent McKinsey Quarterly article that urged companies to “encourage mentoring and networking, to establish… targets for diversity, and to find ways of creating a better work-life balance”. The first two here are critical: mentoring, because it’s a way for a firm’s senior members to tell junior staff that they matter, and networking because it allows women executives to meet and talk – about anything, but not about topics they have little interest in.

In sum, attracting and retaining women isn’t just about letting them in the door and enabling them to have babies. It’s about creating a less alien environment. The sooner companies learn to do that, the slower the women they hire will be to become part of the past.


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