According to Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, a Harvard Business Review article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, large numbers of highly qualified women are dropping out of mainstream careers. According to Hewlett and Luce, a survey of the class of 1981 at Stanford University shows that 57% of women graduates leave the workforce. Another survey of three graduating classes at Harvard Business School demonstrates that only 38% of women end up in full-time careers. In a recent conversation with diversity consultant Jennifer Brown, she reflected Hewlett’s findings that women are defecting from “extreme jobs” (jobs that demand a high number of responsibilities, tight deadlines and long work weeks) in large numbers. As Brown put it, “everyone loses” when women leave the workforce in large numbers. Most companies are beginning to understand the importance of diversity policies, at least from a public relations perspective. Minority buying power is estimated at $10 trillion of the U.S. consumer market, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) buying power was recently valued at $743 billion. Women make 85% of all brand purchases. On top of these factors, new Gen Y talent has expressed a desire to see personal values like diversity embodied in an employer organization, and 86% would consider leaving an employer whose CSR values no longer reflected theirs.
However, apart from these more obvious business factors, something more meaningful is lost as a product of the female “brain drain.” Brown describes the skill sets acquired by women as they travel through their careers as almost a Darwinian endeavor. She explains that women learn to do more with less, they are resourceful, and develop a unique political awareness. These factors equip women to navigate through rocky waters, build the right alliances and relationships and seize strategic opportunities. Because women are more likely to leave and then re-enter the workforce, they often have diverse skills and more work experience than their male counterparts, and greater tolerance for risk.
Collaborative work style is another (generally) female trait that is often undervalued, but of key importance in the workplace. “Female” work styles include listening skills, collaborative approaches to problem solving, and the ability to multi-task and to synthesize a number of viewpoints effectively and quickly. While these traits are conducive to teamwork and a holistic view of problems and opportunities, they are also particularly integral to the innovation process.
Brown’s description familiarly evoked what many innovation practitioners refer to as “human centered design.” In one great article about design and innovation, the author describes the importance of emotional intelligence in the design and innovation process: “Empathy and the human connection is so fundamental to understanding our audience that without it, no amount of analysis, documentation, engineering or management will save us…In the world of business and design, the ability to acutely recognize areas of pleasure or friction could be the difference between a successful product and a bomb.”
While this author in particular discusses product design, “design thinking” refers to innovations in organizational design, service design, and even business strategy design. Characteristic of design thinking is the ability to observe and listen, gather ideas from a number of viewpoints and then synthesize ideas into offerings – all of which are traditionally attributed to female work styles. (For more on design-thinking and innovation, see NYT Article on IDEO Founder Tim Brown).
Placing a monetary value on the loss of women in the workplace is almost impossible to measure. Fortunately, a greater number of companies are embracing the importance of women. For instance, Ernst & Young has implemented flexible work schedules, teleworking infrastructure and peer networking – a combination that tripled the number of women partners in recent years (Hewlett & Luce). While it is not possible to fully quantify female working styles, I would argue that the skills acquired by women throughout their careers paired with brains wired for multi-tasking and collaboration make them natural innovators. As traditional business models characterized by hierarchical order slowly evolve to become more inclusive, meritocratic structures in the future, women will undoubtedly be an important asset. Now, more companies must figure out not only how to retain them, but to better utilize their skills and experience in the meantime.