5 Ways to attract and Retain Strong Female Leaders

6 min read
Feb 12, 2019

The benefits of female leadership are clear, yet female representation in corporate leadership still lags. Here are a few ways your company can attract and retain female talent.

Two young businesswomen having a meeting in the office sitting at a desk having a discussion with focus to a young woman wearing glasses

Promoting women into leadership positions isn't just abut social equality, it's good business too. A 2016 global study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found a significant correlation between women in corporate leadership positions and profitability.

Yet despite this, a gap still exists between female and male representation in corporate leadership. So how can your company navigate this to attract and retain female rock-star talent? Let’s dive in.

The Problem

Despite a steady increase of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies over the past 10 years - the number peaked at 6.4 percent in 2017 - this dipped in 2018 to 4.8 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

What’s the cause of this drop? In the same Pew report, audiences were surveyed about what aspects of corporate leadership they felt women would be stronger at than men, and vice versa. It’s worth noting here that in each category, over half of those polled felt there was no difference.

But in the remaining half, women were considered stronger at things such as creating a safe and respectful workplace; valuing people from different backgrounds; mentoring young employees; and providing fair pay and good benefits. However, 28 percent of respondents felt that men were stronger at negotiating profitable deals.

Not only does this point at a troubling bias, but a bias that is held by nearly a third of those surveyed. Let’s look a bit closer at the impacts of these biases.

In a post for Forbes, Dr. Pragya Agarwal discusses how bias creates a double standard for women seeking roles of power. These biases create expectations around how women are “supposed” to act in the workplace, with stereotypes of being more emotional and less assertive than their male counterparts. However, when women do not conform to this stereotype, they are viewed as abrupt or abrasive. Women are likely to not be promoted in either case, which creates the double standard. Agarwal theorizes that this could be why women are noticeably absent from higher-level company leadership, despite making up almost half of the workforce today.

Employee Retention Report

The Solutions

1. Culture, Benefits, and Equal Pay

The first step in this process, ironically, is to look inward. Here at TINYpulse, we’ve previously written about the impact company values have on things like company culture and employee engagement. Ensure that your values and mission really align with your company’s culture and employees. Are these values that are being lived out in everyday work? Are leadership upholding these values the same way that any employee is expected to?

More importantly, analyze what biases exist in this culture. Are you focusing on certain aspects that might only be appealing to one subset of potential hires? By promoting these, you could be turning away potential star female talent. Does your office offer free beer and video games? Great! But also consider what other aspects of your company culture make it unique in a way that is more universally appealing.

Also review your company’s benefits offerings. Are these prioritizing the health and well-being needs of all employees? Are things like paid maternity leave included? If not, leadership and Human Resources teams should work to ensure that benefits offerings are equal for employees, regardless of gender.

Along with culture and benefits comes pay. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average gender pay gap in the United States is around 19.5 percent. This means that, on average, a woman earns 80.5 percent less than her male counterpart.

How transparent is your company about salary structure? Some companies, such as Whole Foods, have promoted transparency in salary by sharing what all employees are paid, regardless of their role in the company. However, this may not work well in a company where employees themselves demand more privacy. Moz CEO Sarah Bird told us at TINYcon 2018 that her company publicizes salary ranges or “bands” for given roles. Although employees may not know each other’s exact salary, they have knowledge of where they are in relation to their peers.

Promoting equal pay and salary transparency at your company helps ensure that your employees - male or female - are being paid fairly in comparison to one another.

2. Representative Recruiting

In a post for Fast Company, Chana R. Schoenberger reflects on a study of how recruiters engaged prospective employees in job sessions on a West Coast college campus. The study, led by Stanford’s Shelley Correll and Alison Wynn, found that companies who visited the campus not only missed opportunities to draw women into their organization, but pushed them away.

The study attributes this to a few things. Sessions were typically led by male employees while female employees handled session set-up and discussed company culture. And at some of the sessions researchers attended, unprepared male presenters made inappropriate jokes, often referencing pornography or prostitution. Researchers found that this resulted in female students asking fewer questions than their male counterparts. Some even left the sessions early.

All of this points at the need for equal representation of employees at recruiting events. Potential hires should be able to learn about roles from the perspective of a variety of employees - especially those they can relate to. This makes them feel more comfortable to ask questions and know their voice is valued. It also makes the employees answering those questions feel more valued, as they are being trusted to represent the company to potential new hires.

Close up Two Happy Young Businesswomen at the Office Talking About Business Report on Paper.

3. Inspecting Bias

This step, again, requires looking inward. Work with your hiring managers and HR team on gender reversal exercises - examine the answers your team gives to questions posed by a candidate. Then picture those answers as if they were delivered by the opposite gender. How do these answers compare? You and your team may discover some of your own gender biases during these exercises - these can be hard revelations, but important ones for moving forward to ensure your hiring process does not lean on these.

Also work with employees who will be speaking on your company’s behalf to ensure that biases don’t find their way into public-facing communication. In the job session example above, male presenters - especially those who were unprepared - leaned on suggestive jokes to fill time if they felt uncomfortable. Offer professional development training opportunities for employees on public speaking. Similar to eliminating those “uh” and “like” pause words, employees should also be on the lookout for problematic jokes or references. Instead, work with them to establish some go-to topics about your company so that they feel they have the information they need to speak appropriately and effectively. By drawing attention to these biases in the work setting, these solutions may also help some employees correct gender biases outside of work as well.


4. HR Issue Reporting

All employees should feel as though they have an HR team and leadership that supports them. Sexual harassment, and other claims, should be taken seriously and addressed with transparency. Above all, employees should feel that they can report these issues without fear of retaliation, and that these issues will be addressed.

Rideshare company Uber came under scrutiny in 2017 when former engineer Susan Fowler documented chronic sexual harassment at the company on her blog. She wrote that “When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment, they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.” Later, two prominent investors voiced disapproval of the company’s decision to include only insiders in a task force charged with investigating sexual harassment allegations.

This example shows two things: a lack of ability for HR to field sexual harassment claims, and a lack of transparency in the company for addressing them. Companies must ensure that claims against any person in the company - even executive leadership - be taken seriously. By aligning your HR, recruitment, and leadership teams on these issues, your company can create a united front for supporting employees and assuring that claims are addressed fairly and transparently.

5. Marketing

Let’s say your company has completed all of the previously four steps. That’s great! But you need to ensure that these policies and approaches are well-known to both current and potential employees.

As Lola.com CEO Mike Volpe told us at TINYcon 2018, “If you want to recruit all-stars, you need to figure out their path to your door." Volpe recommends using your company culture as a marketing opportunity. As a part of this, you can specifically call out your company’s commitment to growing female leadership. By publicizing this on your company’s website, social media, and job postings, your company’s commitment can attract new female rock-star talent while also affirming it with current employees.

By showing an authentic commitment to diversity and inclusion, your company can attract top female talent in an environment that is supportive to all employees.

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