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One Workplace at a Time – Leadership Strategies for Retaining Women Employees

August 10, 2021

By Beki Fraser, originally featured in SBAM’s FOCUS magazine

Business leaders in Michigan and across the country are challenged to recruit and retain women employees—and may need to re-invent their workplaces to compete for essential talent.

Research confirms what you’ve likely experienced firsthand: COVID-19 has been devastating for working moms and the employers who rely on them.

Nearly three million American women dropped out of the labor force in a year, unable to balance work with child care and other family demands intensified by the pandemic. Among married couples in which both partners have jobs they can perform remotely, mothers scaled back their work hours to a far greater extent than fathers. Nationally, the percentage of women working or looking for work fell to its lowest level since 1988, with Black women impacted particularly hard.

In my experience as an executive coach, and previously as a corporate HR director, I have consulted with hundreds of business leaders as they dealt with unprecedented changes, disruptions and threats. In those instances, we would buckle in and strive to understand the underlying problem—not just react to the symptoms.

Once we had a deep understanding of the situation, we could consider the options available and design the best plan to move forward. Many employers have taken significant steps to help women stay on the job during the pandemic, providing flexible schedules, improved healthcare, mental health, family leave, child care benefits and other support. But the problem prevails. 

Each workplace needs a customized, nuanced response because every company is different. The nature of the work, the workforce, the culture, the market served and the financials vary and each company needs to craft a custom approach to retain the women on its team. A framework for tackling this issue includes meeting women workers where they are in this cycle: having left the job, in the process of leaving or thinking about leaving.

In each scenario, it’s worthwhile for you, the employer, to check in with yourself first. What are your attitudes and beliefs about the choices these women are making? Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, it’s important to remember that this challenge is difficult for them and each individual is responding to unique circumstances. We can easily be hijacked by our own attitudes and beliefs and slip into reaction mode, which is not productive. Instead, take a pause and consciously choose how to respond—and get creative about what that means in each situation.

Now that you have checked in with yourself, it’s time to engage with others in designing a solution.

When Women Have Left

If you don’t look at your exit interview information, this is the time to do it. Run the report, build the spreadsheet, or do what’s necessary to see the trends and root causes. Most people have a hard time telling you why they are leaving, so it’s important for you to ask.

Here’s the thing: Their departure has likely been hard on your organization because finding and onboarding new talent is challenging. Don’t let that prevent you from understanding her perspective—what are her reasons for leaving? If you didn’t ask her as she departed, you can consider sending a request now to help you understand what prompted her exit. Knowing the specifics may help you prevent others from following that same path out the door.

When Women Say They’re Leaving

You just got a message that made your heart sink. Another valued employee intends to resign because she cannot strike an acceptable work-life balance.

Well, if you want to retain her, you may still have a chance. Admittedly, you’re in a reactive position, but there is still an opportunity to use a couple strategies:

  1. Ask if she is open to discuss strategies that would enable her to stay. If she says the decision is final, don’t press. No means no. That said, you can offer that the door is open for that conversation if she changes her mind. This is also a time to tell her at least one thing you value about her contributions and thank her for the time she’s given the organization. 
  2. Assuming she is willing to consider options that would keep her employed with you, listen with an open mind. Ask questions. Seek to understand. Don’t say why something is or isn’t possible. Commit to coming back with options or ideas. It’s important to remember, you are not obligated to commit to something right away! 

When Women Are Thinking About Leaving

Know who your top talent is. You may be fine with some individuals handing in their resignation. In my experience, the most valuable employees find the door faster because they are qualified, capable and others recognize their talent. 

Recognize and appreciate what she is doing for the organization today. It’s not always about the money. In fact, most often it’s not. At a certain income (studies show around $75K per year), money becomes even less of a motivating factor than it is at lower incomes. Gratitude and recognition, however, are valued at all income levels.

Be proactive and ask women you want to retain about their job engagement and satisfaction. Don’t directly ask if she is thinking of leaving. Instead, ask how she feels about the balance of everything on her plate—yes, it can be that vague. Allow her to share what she chooses to share. If she has challenges, ask open ended questions about what type of resources and support might help her. The prerequisite for this conversation, of course, is a workplace culture in which she feels safe sharing her challenges.

Prepare to communicate. You may have policies and practices that can support her current needs. Dust them off, review them and be ready to talk about them. Identify what type of temporary leave policies are in place (medical, personal, FMLA, etc.) to provide a short-term departure without a full resignation. What flexibility can you provide through job share or temporary part-time options? How might the role be configured to be partially work-from-home? 

Beyond policies that are already in place, brainstorm what more you might be able to do to accommodate this individual while still maintaining equity across your workforce. No, these are not necessarily universal or permanent solutions for you or your employee. But taking the time to discuss options sends the message that she is valued—and, if she ultimately decides to leave, she may come back in the near future.

This is a new day and a new world. There is no “going back to normal.” The peak of the pandemic may have passed and vaccines and in-person school may provide some latitude,
but you have a transition ahead of you and it’s likely to have a long tail.

In Summary

  • Don’t assume. You don’t know what she needs until you hear it from her.
  • Ask. Empathize. Be proactive. If she hasn’t told you, show some interest in her needs.
  • Be flexible to a reasonable extent. Challenge your definition of reasonable and notice what resistance you have to making accommodations. 
  • Communicate. Appreciate differences. Be fair. There is a difference between equal and equitable. Equal is everyone receiving exactly the same thing. Equity is when we get things geared toward the “win” we want. Not everyone needs the same things, so you can set up protocols, policies and practices to support the capacity to work. 

This isn’t about solving the universal and global challenges for women in the workplace. It’s about solving your immediate and local challenges. You have an opportunity to contribute to the whole by solving for your organization today.


Beki Fraser is a certified business and leadership coach who frequently coaches “introverted skeptics.” She worked 15+ years as an HR leader for a variety of companies and holds an MBA from the Yale School of Management. Learn more on her website at www.focusforgrowth.com.

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