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The Future of Work

The Surprising, One-Size-Fits-All Solution To The Gender-Leadership Gap

Family priorities can't fully explain why women drop out of the talent pipeline disproportionately.

The Surprising, One-Size-Fits-All Solution To The Gender-Leadership Gap
[Photo: Flickr user Jaume Escofet]

Technology's impact on business is nothing if not a mixed blessing. At the same time that it leads to innovation, it threatens employees' health and satisfaction in the workplace. We already know how relentless connectivity can be counterproductive, but it appears to take a disproportionate toll on women. If that's the case, though, then so is the opposite: Restoring work-life balance for everyone may mean retaining more female talent in particular.

A Leaky Talent Pipeline

According to the latest Bain & Company research, companies start strong on gender, with almost half of entry-level roles filled by women. Yet women’s ambition for top management posts starts dropping relative to men's after just two years in the workforce, ultimately falling by a whopping 60%, while men's leadership ambitions hold steady.

Sheryl Sandberg has argued that women undermine their progress by doubting their ability to combine work and family—that we take ourselves out of the running by failing to "lean in." Anne-Marie Slaughter, for her part, emphasizes the lack of employer policies designed to support caregivers. Yet the data suggests that workplaces still seem to fail even the women who don't have family priorities to keep in balance.

One reason for that may lie in issues that impact workers regardless of gender. In 2014, Gallup found that using mobile devices for work was strongly correlated with high levels of stress, and in 2012 the World Health Organization called stress the "health epidemic of the 21st century." So perhaps it wasn't terribly surprising when researchers at and McKinsey & Co. found last year that workplace stress was a leading cause for women's attrition from the race toward becoming executives.

Equal Overwork, Unequal Consequences

So the assumption that professional women avoid top jobs because they lack confidence or want to focus on their families is incomplete at best and misleading at worst. As Rebecca Traister argued persuasively in a sweeping New York Magazine cover story last month, our corporate and governmental institutions run on the outmoded assumption that most women are connected in some way to a spouse or children. That's never been less true than it is today, and those women who do juggle family responsibilities aren't defined by them in the same ways their mothers were.

As Traister writes, that's leaving single women especially underserved in myriad ways, but virtually all women are getting left behind in one way or another. In fact, 58% of women with children and 55% of women without children told LeanIn and McKinsey researchers that they weren't interested in top-level jobs for the very same reason: because of the stress those jobs entailed. Nor were women simply less tolerant of it: Roughly 50% of men in both categories (with children and without) cited the same source for their reluctance. To set corporate America on a path to gender equality, we need to rethink work cultures in ways that lets everyone thrive.

In a recent Deloitte survey of 3,330 businesses and HR leaders from 106 countries, 57% of organizations rated themselves "weak" when it comes to helping workers manage difficult schedules and the flow of information. Another study found that organizations fail to remove low-value tasks from the desks of high-value knowledge workers, who waste up to 41% of their time on things that offer little personal satisfaction and cause them to take work home. What's more, many workers surrender their productivity to the very tools designed to help them work better; by one measure, white-collar workers spending 70–85% of their time on the phone, on email, or in meetings.

Work without boundaries affects everyone. The United Nations found that 67% of American women and 86% of American men work more than 40 hours a week. The LeanIn study found that 90% of both women and men believe taking extended family leave will hurt their careers. In fact, nearly 41% of American workers didn't take a single day off in 2015.

But even if this type of work culture doesn't discriminate, women still pay a greater price. A Harvard Business School study of a mid-sized global consulting firm found that both genders took issue with around-the-clock connectivity.

Yet it was women who faced more career-damaging consequences in their efforts to meet those outsize demands. The study revealed assumptions that women would choose motherhood over work and thus be unable to meet job expectations.

However, the feedback for women who defied those stereotypes was arguably worse: Senior female partners, who prioritized work over family, were seen as bad managers and bad mothers by both genders, leading junior women to rethink the path to the top.

Ending The 24/7 Workday

There's no doubt that employer expectations drive employee behavior, so addressing overwork has to start from the top. Boston Private Bank’s EVP and chief human resources officer, Martha Higgins, put it to me this way:

It is not just employees but corporate executives who need to model a commitment to work-life balance. We have designed our corporate wellness programs to help employees address and relieve health, emotional, caregiving, and financial burdens. I personally integrate mindfulness into my strategy to better balance all aspects of work-life demands and encourage others to find strategies that fit their needs.

That's an important first step, but it may not be enough in the long run. The available research sends a clear message: Combating sexist workplace stereotypes and adding more supportive policies can make real and measurable impacts on workers' lives, but until we abandon the expectation of constant connectivity—and the 24/7 workday it enables—they'll only mitigate the consequences, not address the cause.

And in the meantime, working women will keep a disproportionate share of the price for that shortfall.

Related: Sallie Krawcheck On The Benefits Of Investing In Women

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