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Keeping women in business

Joelle Jay

Leaders take notice: a crisis is brewing.

Today, U.S.

businesses are losing some of their very best talent educated, experienced women in what may be the largest talent drain ever.

Why? Because the balance of work and family, for many, is exacting too

high a price.

Census Bureau data shows nearly a quarter of women with professional degrees absent from the workforce at the height of the recent labor crunch.

Other surveys of Ivy League graduates reveal that: 57 percent of women graduates leave the work force, Only 38 percent of women graduates end up in full-time careers, and one in three white women holding an MBA is not working full-time (Harvard Business Review,March 2005).

And Time magazine (March, 2004) recently reported “the first-ever drop-off in workplace participation by married mothers with a child less than 1 year old … mostly among women who were white, over 30, and well-educated.” These statistics indicate a disturbing trend that those abandoning their careers are largely high-achieving women, whose jobs tend to demand longer hours,who carry more responsibility and whose absence arguably makes the greatest impact on business.

Among the women leaving are the best of the best.

Examples include, former Bush advisor, Karen Hughes; former CEO of PepsiCo, Brenda Barnes; and former ambassador to Pakistan,Wendy Chamberlain all of whom at one point or another have left high-profile careers to spend time with their families.

Time, Newsweek, 60 Minutes, the New York Times and other media have recently profiled numerous other less prominent accomplished women representing the thousands who face the issue every day.

Why are so many capable women turning away from their work? Sylvia Ann Hewlett,writing for the Harvard Business Review (April, 2002), reports that they are,”forced out of their jobs by family demands, punishing hours in the office and unrewarding work.” Some are compelled to become full-time mothers, to care for elderly parents, or for personal health reasons.

Whether they are pushed away by an unforgiving work environment or pulled away by the lure of family life, one thing is clear: for high-achieving women, life balance is becoming an increasing impossibility.

Business women play a special role in addressing this issue.

Because we understand the issue so intimately whether directly through our own experiences or indirectly through the women around us we can consciously make an effort to pave the way for a healthier approach to success that honors career and quality of life.

The well-being of businesses and the women within them are at stake.

What can be done to retain talented women? Many prominent solutions include companywide policy changes, such as paid parenting leave, flexible workdays, job sharing and telecommuting.

But, as Hewlett argues, many of these policies “seem to be of limited use to timepressed, highachieving women” particularly given the tendency for such choices to be stigmatized.

While companies begin to examine their responses to the issue, businesswomen and men can take action personally not by perpetuating all-or-nothing choices, but by using the talents that have made them successful in business to address the issue head-on.

Some suggestions:

* Establish mentors.

The tensions of work/life balance tend to be felt most intensely by women in their 30s, when marriage, career and motherhood converge.

These women can benefit from the experience of women who have successfully navigated this particularly challenging time of life.

* Hire a coach.

Because this issue is so personal, one-on-one coaching with a professional can help promising women make choices that truly honor all of who they are.

* Use creativity.

Find new ways to meet the needs of women leaders which in many cases may simply mean asking them what they want.

* Beware the punishing workload.Many professions value long hours over

quality work.

Take a second look at the business culture and see if it really awards what’s most important.

* Work against the stigma.

Combat stereotypes against people who choose flex time or job-sharing by making opportunities available to them and being fair with recognition.

As this issue becomes more widespread, many are calling for the increased participation on the part of companies to address the problem.Women leaders can help make that happen.

In the meantime, businesswomen and men can also continue to work one by one on an individual basis, that makes change possible – if not for the entire population of women in business, at least for one at a time.

Joelle Jay of Reno is a leadership coach and professional speaker specializing in leadership and personal effectiveness, and the president of Pillar Consulting, LLC (www.pillar-consulting.com).

She can be reached at Joelle@pillar-consulting.com.