Why Having A Female CEO Doesn’t Guarantee Work-Life Balance

Putting policies in place does little good if the company culture doesn’t encourage employees to use them.

Why Having A Female CEO Doesn’t Guarantee Work-Life Balance
[Photo: Flickr user James Jordan]

Women working at companies that focus on gender equality, work-life balance, and provide generous maternity leave policies report the highest levels of job satisfaction, so you might assume that working for a company with a female CEO would guarantee a work environment that supports women. Not necessarily.


New research from the women’s career site FairyGodBoss reveals that having a female CEO might not be enough for a company to create a work environment that is supportive to women. Their findings show that overall job satisfaction for women at three tech companies with women CEOs (HP, IBM, and Oracle) is significantly lower than at the seven other top tech firms (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Intel, Salesforce, and Amazon).

FairyGodBoss put together its list of the based on 5,000 anonymous member reviews that answer these three questions: Are women treated fairly/equally here? Would you recommend this company to other women? How happy are you here (on a scale of 1 to 5)?

“One of the most commonly used sentences in all these reviews is ‘it depends on your manager,’” says Romy Newman, cofounder of FairyGodBoss. “That’s why it’s not enough to have a female CEO at the top. It’s hard to change the behaviors of individual managers.”

Support for women has to be part of the culture all through the ranks, not just at the top, says Karen Rubin, managing director for Talking Talent North America, a firm that helps companies develop the female talent pipeline. For instance, she says, there are many companies that offer generous maternity-leave policies and flexible work arrangements that never get used because it’s not culturally acceptable to take advantage of them. “Having a policy is only half the solution,” Rubin says.

Rachael Ellison, senior partner for the Center for Parental Leave Partnership, agrees that having a policy in place doesn’t guarantee that employees will feel comfortable using it. “There are policies implemented at the top level of an organization and employees who are looking to use those policies,” she says, “but there is a big, gray area in the middle and it’s hard to navigate.”


Many women struggle with the demands of work just as they are forming a family, says Joanna Barsh, director emerita for McKinsey & Company and author of Centered Leadership. Often their managers are men who are afraid of saying the wrong thing and lack training to coach effectively, she says. This combination can make it difficult to have constructive conversations that help women navigate the workplace.

As a result, employees need training on how to become empowered to ask for leave, and managers need training on how to implement leave policies, especially around maternity leave. Here are three ways managers can better support leave policies.

Be Intentional About The Work

Often when a woman announces she is pregnant, there is very little planning around who will be doing her work while she is out, and how she will transition back when she returns. Companies should provide managers with a checklist of topics to discuss with an employee before she goes on leave, Ellison says.

Establish A Clear Communication Plan

Know in advance how connected a new mother wants be to the office while she is on leave, Rubin says. Some women may want to do weekly calls, others will occasionally check email, and some will want to be off the grid completely, she says. It’s essential to know what to expect before someone is away.

Set The Right Tone

The manager is key to positioning the transition with the rest of the team, Rubin says, so it’s important that the manager be positive and matter-of-fact about maternity leave. When announcing it to the team, the manager should simply say, Here’s how we are divvying up the work, and this is when she’s coming back.


The transition back to work also can be tricky, says Rubin. Here are three ways an employee can help ease her transition back to work.

Reframe Your Request

Rather than tell your boss that you need to work a flexible schedule or telecommute because you are exhausted or have family obligations, reframe your request to explain why telecommuting one day a week will make you more productive at work, Ellison says. Don’t make your request about your family.

Related: How To Negotiate To Get The Parental Leave You Want

Don’t Try To Be Indispensible

Women tend to do more than what they’re responsible for at work to show they’re indispensible, Ellison says, but that often backfires when you have a family. Ask yourself what particular value you add by staying at work past 5:30 p.m., and then decide if it’s necessary.

Be Honest

Sometimes when a woman comes back to work, her manager will increase her workload to signal to the employee that he believes in her, Ellison says, but if that doesn’t feel comfortable, have a conversation with your manager about whether you can handle the increased workload, what happens if you can’t, and how your manager can help you transition back.


About the author

Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, technology and beer. Her articles appear in The Christian Science Monitor,, Family Circle and October.