Workplaces should intentionally 'weed in' talented female leaders

Workplaces should intentionally 'weed in' talented female leaders
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With Congress now considering a plan to allow for four weeks of family leave — down from the Biden administration’s recent proposal of 12 — I’m concerned that the public debate on this issue is too narrowly focused on time off. While adequate time away from the office is necessary, it is only one small part of making the workplace a better place for women to thrive.  

As president of one of the nation’s leading colleges focused on women, my goal is to help women advance in their careers and break the glass ceiling to take on important leadership roles. But considering an additional 300,000 women have dropped out of the labor force in September alone, I’m increasingly attuned to the fact that it might not be enough to just train women to enter the workforce. Rather we need to redefine the workplace for women right now, in order to create a more inclusive and sustainable pathway for them to rise up the ranks, regardless of whether or not they are also raising a family.

But what might that look like in practice? 

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For companies serious about hiring top talent in the middle of this current talent crisis — and especially in hiring diverse female talent — it's time to switch the approach from weeding out un- or -underqualified candidates to ‘weeding in’ candidates that demonstrate potential.  

As a cognitive scientist that has spent decades studying how the biases we face due to gender can impact our abilities to perform — from the classroom to the boardroom — I’m hyper-aware of the fact that just being a woman can set us up to be “weeded out” before we even get our foot in the door.  

Unfortunately, studies have found that female candidates in particular are more likely to be judged based on their past performance rather than their potential to do their jobs well. And a new study from Yale published last month found that while women are consistently rated higher than men in annual performance reviews, they are rated lower on “leadership potential” — which is often a determining factor in promotion. This contributes to the well-documented “broken rung” phenomenon, which explains how the first step up to manager is the most difficult one for women to achieve when climbing the corporate ladder.

By ‘weeding in’ women to their talent pipeline, companies are better positioned to support the broader cultural changes needed to make office culture a place where women can truly thrive. The latest study from McKinsey/LeanIn.org found that women are twice as likely as men to be spending their working time supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives and goals, beyond their day-to-day jobs. In other words, women play a crucial role in making the office a better place for, well, everyone.

While making it easier for women to get their foot in the door can help build a pipeline for the next generation of female talent, there also needs to be a significant structural change in order to keep women at the top. We need to continue to push for offices to move beyond the binary of in-office versus remote work, particularly when it comes to thinking about family leave and flexibility.

I’ve previously written about the unintended harm our changing work policies could have on working women (especially mothers) by reinforcing unequal division of labor within the home by making it easier for women to work remote and care for children and home responsibilities, while men return to in-person office life and the opportunities that come with it. A recent survey of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women found that 55 percent of women in the C-suite did not believe they would have gotten their current titles had they worked from home earlier on in their careers, with 90 percent noting they had never taken a break from their careers for longer than a year. 

Smart hybrid work policies can help, especially when clear expectations and standards are set for in-office versus out-of-office time. Embracing creative new policies that can support companies' efforts to “weed-in” women, especially those interested in returning to work after taking time off, is also important. 

Offering part-time on-ramps, particularly at the managerial level, can make it easier for women to take on increased workplace responsibility while transitioning from being full-time caregivers. Some companies like Google and JP Morgan have embraced the “returnship” to offer women re-entering the workforce with bespoke professional development training and opportunities designed to help them quickly progress in their careers after an absence. Companies that offer gender-based programming designed to help women transition out of the office and back again stand to become the type of companies where women will choose to stay long term to build their careers.  

On the societal level, more broad policies, like mandatory parental leave regardless of gender, or even more accessible public programs to support new or part-time entrepreneurs can help make it easier for women to not only reach their full potential but chart their own pathway to getting there. Of all the new businesses started during COVID, roughly half were started by women — one bright spot in a year full of setbacks. 

Rather than focusing on how all these women are leaving the workforce right now or dedicating all our political capital to the debate of a single policy,  let’s hone in on how we can really make the world of work a better place for women — and, in turn, for everyone. Let's set new norms from the ground up that help weed women in and make it both possible and sustainable for women to balance and achieve their true professional goals.

Dr. Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist by training and serves as the president of Barnard College at Columbia University. She is the author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.”