More Than Maternity Leave: How Progressive Employers Can Attract and Retain Women

There is a growing body of evidence that shows we need diversity on our teams, yet we’re still having a hard time recruiting women if the events and headlines I see in the Chicago tech community are any indications. In fact, it’s tough all over. The 2017 Society for Human Resource Management annual survey was subtitled “Remaining Competitive in a Challenging Talent Marketplace” and opens with an unsurprising finding: “recruiting difficulty has continued to increase over the last five years, and competition for talent is high.”

Employers are competing in a challenging market for sure, but perhaps even more competitive for women. One reason could be that women’s participation in the labor force has been declining in the U.S. since 1999 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Why are some women not working, in spite of historically high education levels?

One factor is perhaps not surprising: they are staying home with their children. In a 2016 report, Gallup reported that 54% of stay-at-home mothers cited wanting to stay home with their children as a “major factor” why they are not working. The report goes so far as to present “kids are a company’s greatest competition” as a key finding. This competition is an irritating way to frame the issue, but it’s hard to argue.

Another factor, less frequently discussed, was caring for a sick or aging family member (12%.) Whether by choice or necessity, many women don’t work because they can’t see a way to make work and family “work” — in spite of the fact that millions of us prove every day that professional success is not incompatible with having a (family) life. So what can progressive employers do to attract and retain women?

Progressive Employers Know That Flexibility Matters

First and foremost, offer flexibility — in hours, shifts, days, and location of work. Werk, a startup championing flexibility as the future of work, shared survey results this month indicating one in two employees (53%) would leave their job for a flexible alternative. Research conducted by The Mom Project, a Chicago-based startup which connects enterprises with highly-skilled female talent, finds 83% of women would leave a job for an opportunity that better supports work-life considerations (with flexibility and respect being the two primary factors according.)

More companies are recognizing the need for flexibility by offering more generous PTO policies, flexible hours, paid leave, and remote work opportunities. This freedom is good because that Gallup report found that 60% of women (versus 48% of men) rate greater work-life balance and better personal well-being as a “very important” factor in deciding to take a job with a different company. Translated: if they can’t live their life and work for you, many women leave.

Progressive Employers Know That Organizational Fit Matters

Women also care about organizational fit. They look for organizations that reflect their values, and which respect their obligations outside of work. Men care about fit too, but the organizational fit has a 42% greater impact on women’s engagement than men’s, according to a 2016 report from Peakon, makers of people analytics and employee engagement software.

So, if we’re talking about how to attract and retain women, it makes sense to:
● Articulate and advertise your company values to prospective employees
● Offer benefits (and define policies) that support choice, autonomy, and flexibility

Progressive Employers Recognize Missed Opportunities and Untapped Potential

In December, I reviewed the Career pages of 100 randomly selected ITA member companies. Only 54% stated their company values on their Career page (and more than one mentioned ping pong or beer under “Culture,” which doesn’t count.) A smaller percentage (43%) tout benefits likely to appeal to women, whether that’s flex time, generous or unlimited PTO, backup child care, or elder care assistance. While this sample may not be representative, it is instructive.

These missed opportunities to communicate your value as an employer could be a quick win. If you have attractive benefits and a corporate culture worth talking about (and you probably do), make sure your Career page reflects that!

While the Career page is a comfortable place to start, I think we all recognize that in the current environment, it may take more than that to fill the pipeline. Luckily, there are several sources of untapped potential for female talent recruitment. Companies are developing new programs to recruit women and men who have stepped out of the workforce for family or personal reasons. The Mom Project sources talent for “Maternityships,” to fill staffing gaps created by parental leaves (and provide mothers a path back to the workforce.) Other progressive companies are investing in “returnships” or structured return-to-work programs to support re-entry after a career break.

These are all encouraging signs of a growing recognition that we can’t let this talent sit out. But the best news of all has probably not escaped you: rising tides lift all boats. What’s good for women is good for men, too.

About the Author
Karen Purze is an author, product leader, and entrepreneur. Employers hire Karen to teach their employees practical skills to prepare for life transitions like starting a family or caring for aging parents. She blogs at