Women’s Influence Generates a Workplace Retrofit

By Diane Merlino

The premise is simple enough: On an international scale, the rising economic power of women is changing the world.    

The impact is apparent in business, where there’s been explosive growth in the last decade in the number of women-owned enterprises. A concurrent trend, emerging at a slower pace, is a kind of forced innovation inside the corporate world to prevent the brain drain resulting from the “entrepreneurial exodus” of women.   

Both of these trends, says Maddy Dychtwald, author of Influence: How Women’s Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World for the Better (Hyperion Books, 2010), are benefitting men, women and families. Forward-thinking firms that prove the point include Deloitte, with its voluntary Mass Customization Program designed to respond to changing demands in the lives of men and women over time, and Microsoft’s mandatory maternity and paternity leave. 

This is the second excerpt of a recent discussion between Dychtwald and Travel Weekly PLUS Editor in Chief Diane Merlino. 

Maddy, you’ve identified a trend: Corporations are introducing innovations in the workplace to stem the talent drain they’re experiencing from the “entrepreneurial exodus” of women leaving to start their own businesses. Do you have any examples of industries or companies that have done this?
Consulting firms are a good example. My son went to Columbia University and they were all out there in droves doing recruiting; he told me that three-quarters of the student body went to interviews with the big consulting firms. They’re great jobs to get your chops in business, and see what it is that you like or don’t like.

The big consulting firms work very hard to recruit the best and the brightest. Today, with women graduating from college in higher numbers than men, they are really going after women. And they spend so much time and money training these women, and men as well, that they can’t afford to lose them — and they were losing them in droves.

In your book you talk about Deloitte as an example of innovating to keep women in the workforce.
Deloitte is the perfect example. They’ve gone way beyond flex to reinventing the career track. In my book I mention Cathy Benko, who happens to be an amazing person. She was a vice chairman and chief talent officer at Deloitte at the time I was researching the book. She was also the primary breadwinner in her family, and a mom.
Maddy Dychtwald booksigningShe realized that the company had to start doing better, because a very small percentage of the women who came on as consultants went on to become partners. That was a huge problem. So they started developing a different kind of program. And, instead of focusing on the traditional upward corporate ascension, they began to realize that careers came in arcs, that they’re like waves.

For instance, when you start your career, when you’re right out of college, you have a lot of time, you have a lot of energy, a lot of focus. Most people aren’t married with the burdens of family and children, so they can put a lot of time and energy into their work. They’re willing to do the travel, and do all of those things. Ten years later it’s a different picture. So they created a program called Mass Career Customization. It’s really pretty innovative.
Editor’s Note: In Influence, Dychtwald describes Deloitte’s Mass Career Customization program as treating employees of both genders as people who will naturally want to ramp up or ramp down their work at different states of their lives. By 2009, 90% of Deloitte’s U.S. employees were using the program.  

So they created this program specifically for women?
One of the interesting footnotes to this is that originally the program was developed for women, but men complained. They said, “What do you mean? This sounds too good, I want to be in on this.”

And other companies have begun to realize that this approach makes a lot of sense. Companies are beginning to take this kind of model, created for women trying to retrofit the workplace so it’s more user friendly, and applying it to women and men. Because if you talk to young people, young men will tell you that they want the same things that women want. They want a little bit more balance. They want to be able to spend time with their families and have a career.

That’s the big shift that’s going on with what women are doing to retrofit corporations, in particular. They’re not rebuilding them. They’re going inside of the companies, and they’re making retrofits.

Again, companies aren’t responding to these efforts because they’re trying to be nice guys; they’re doing it because they recognize that they’re not going to have a good bottom line unless they treat their best talent with respect and flexibility.

Will there ever be a truly level playing field in the corporate world for women?
I think it’s moving in the right direction in many instances. And it really impacts young people. I think young people are going to be the ones who really change it, because people in my age group have done such a great job.

I have two kids, a boy and a girl, and they’re both in their early twenties. We raised our kids with the same sensibility, without gender differences. When my son was little, I let him play with dolls if he wanted to, and I encouraged my daughter to play in sports. We encouraged both of them to do well in school, and we both told them, “You can do anything you want.”

And what I see with both of them is that they feel resistant to going into that nonflexible, nine-to-five environment where the more hours you work, the better you are, rather than the results you create are what’s really important. And I hear their friends talking, very well educated kids who have somehow landed in decent jobs. But they have insisted on that kind of flexibility that we used to associate primarily with women.

That’s really encouraging.
It is hopeful. I don’t think it’s happening across the board, but it is happening in companies that are forward thinking.

Let me give you a great example of something that happened at Microsoft. They have a sort of image problem, but with their employees, they’ve always had a great reputation. Microsoft created a program of three to six months for maternity and paternity leave. They put it into place, but nobody ever took it, which was a problem because it really discouraged women from taking their maternity leave. Women felt, “Oh my God, I’m not going to succeed if I miss out on three months at work and these other guys are there just kind of sucking it up.”

So Microsoft made the program mandatory for both men and women; you have to take the time off. And they found that it had an amazing effect on morale and on families, and it had an amazing effect on the company’s retention levels, because suddenly it wasn’t a gender issue; it became a family issue.

That’s a big transformation that hasn’t really taken hold in our minds here. In many European countries it has, but here we still see having children as a gender issue, a women’s thing. But it’s not a women’s thing; it’s a family thing.

I think this next generation, this generation of millennials, is leading the transformation here, because these young men think differently. They take for granted that women are going to be successful because they see their mothers and their sisters and their friends being successful. And they want to have that balance in their lives, just like women want to have it.

Do you believe it’s possible to eliminate the gender issue inside the workplace? To make sure women have as equal a shot at success as men?
Let me first put it into context. Today, when men and women graduate college with an equal education and they’re looking at the same job, oftentimes it’s the woman who will get the better starting salary, especially in a huge urban center like Berlin, New York, London, Paris. So, more women are graduating college, and they’re getting higher starting salaries. Then, over time, they lose out, and then they eventually do better. The question is, why?

It’s because women want to have babies. And then they want to spend time with their babies. And it creates a horrible conflict inside you. I remember when I had my kids, I just felt like something had to give. When I was at work, I felt like I should have been at home. When I was at home, I felt like I should have been at work. I felt like I just couldn’t win.

I’ve seen so many of my women friends go through this conflict.
It’s a very common thing. But you could build that into the workplace. The forward-thinking human resources people would note, “Aha! Between the ages of 30 and 40, men and women — not just women, but families — are going to want to focus on raising children for a while. We’re not going to put them on the down-low, but let’s give them a little space. Let’s not put men and women on the mommy track, but let’s give them the space to coast a little bit in their careers. And then know that they’ll come back when they’re 45 or 50, and want to go full steam ahead.”

The other side of this is the aging issue. With people living longer, and not being able to afford retirement, they want to stay in the workplace longer anyway.  So, the whole shape of your work life, your career track, really begins to change form.

Are women using their emerging economic power to play by a different set of rules in the work world? 
I don’t think it’s about that. Today’s women are different than women back in the 1980s. They realize it’s not about learning to play by men’s rules; it’s about creating something new.

And I don’t want for a minute to suggest that it’s about outdoing men, because that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about coming up with a new construct that’s better for men and better for women. Something that they can both be happier with, where there is a level playing field and a lot of equality. At the same time, recognizing that each individual brings something different to the party and that both genders do have different propensities, things they can learn from each other. Women realize that’s really important. 

Also see Women + Economic Power = A Whole New World for insights by Maddy Dychtwald on the impact of the explosion in women-owned businesses.

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