Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Stay On Message

When we talk about the challenge of how to increase women on boards of directors at corporations, too often the subject digresses into “the need for more government subsidized childcare” like in Eastern Europe, that bastion of gender equality. Or, the argument is made that employers “ought to” provide the subsidized daycare for women in the labor force.

Or we hear the argument that women are NOT in leadership because, allegedly, women ARE busy at home, taking care of children and therefore with little time or opportunity for career advancement.  It is the fault of couch-potato husbands who watch football on TV, rather than attend to kids, housework, and family finances. Ironically, research shows that the truly talented women at the top in business have families, children, great partners and manage their time and support resources for the family as effectively as they do for their businesses.

An examination of the Census data (March 2008) provides some insight into this debate. The female population is 155.8 M, with 82.8 M “mothers” (53.1%) of children of all ages.  Today, the average family has just 1.9 children – significantly lower than at any time in the history of working women in America. 

Looking at the numbers and relative percentage share, we find that for every 10 women in the labor force (WILF) there are 6 women with NO children under 18 years compared to 4 women WITH children under 18 years of age. Among the women in the labor force WITH children, only 3 have children aged 6 to 17, another 2 have pre-schoolers under 6 years, and only 1 woman has a stay-at-home toddler under 3 years.

Civ. LF
% Share
Civ. Pop
% Share
Women aged 16 years and older
     With no children < 18 years
     With children < 18 years
           W/ children 6-17 years
           W/ children < 6 years
           W/ children < 3 years

When we compare the women in the labor force to the total civilian population of women, the ratio is the “labor force participation rate” for each subgroup.  The chart below shows the ever increasing labor force participation rate for women in all subgroup categories between 1975 and 2008, with a peak year percentage for each of the same subgroups discussed above.

Peak Year

LFPR, 2008
LFPR, 2001
LFPR, 2000
LFPR, 1999
LFPR, 1998
LFPR, 1997
LFPR, 1975
Women aged 16 years and older


     With no children < 18 years


     With children < 18 years

           W/ children 6-17 years

           W/ children < 6 years


           W/ children < 3 years



Labor force participation rates for all groups of women in the labor force, with and without children and all ages of children present, increased significantly over the past 3 decades. Also, in all cases, a peak year occurred around 1997 to 2001. In all cases, 2008 is lower than that peak.

In 2008, women with children aged 6 to 17 years had the highest labor force participation rate for that subgroup (77.5%).  Women with children under 18 years of age had a LFPR of 71.2% compared to only 54.3% for women with NO children under age 18 years. The “NO children” subgroup is the largest: 6 out of every 10 women in the labor force reported NO children under 18 years.  This group includes women with NO children, plus women who might have children some day as well as older women with adult children.

If we want more women in leadership, we probably should focus on this largest group of women – those with NO children, rather than those WITH children.  Women’s labor force participation rate increases as their children age. For all groups of women with children, the historic peak in the labor force participation rate is significantly higher than for women with NO children, suggesting that when the economy does well, women (especially women with children) are more likely to participate in the workforce.

The data would suggest that factors which improve the overall economy, the jobs picture and which create economic opportunity, have a more positive impact enabling more women to enter the workforce than simply a focus on day care, whether employer or government subsidized, serving a smaller share of women with children.

As one woman once said, “Give me a decent salary, and I’ll go out and buy the childcare services I want in the marketplace, myself.”

Sources of tables:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unlocking the Full Potential

McKinsey & Company released a special report to the WSJ Women in the Economy Executive Task Force, “Unlocking the full potential of women in the U.S. economy” April 2011 (authored by Joanna Barsh, a director in McKinsey’s New York office, and Lareina Yee, a principal in the San Francisco office.)

This is the central problem the report addressed: “Corporate America has a “leaky” talent pipeline: At each transition up the management ranks, more women are left behind.”

Their study further elaborated on how many different ways we could view that central problem:  is it a case of  women being pushed out, or women being left behind, or is it that women opt out?  Depending on the problem, different solutions are required.  Note some of the essential finding of this research:

  • “Women often elect to remain in jobs if they derive a deep sense of meaning professionally.”
  • “More than men, women prize the opportunity to pour their energies into making a difference and working closely with colleagues.”
  • “Of all the forces that hold women back, however, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs… the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity. Managers—male and female…”
So, the problem looks as if it is a "team sport" -- women have some input, men have some input and corporations have something to do with the problem.  McKinsey reports on four critical areas.

Structural obstacles:specific factors that hold women back or that convince women that their odds of advancement may be better elsewhere”
  • lack of access to informal networks where they can make important connections,
  • lack of female role models higher up in the organization,
  • lack of sponsors to provide opportunities, which many male colleagues have.
The challenge for women, today, is to spend more time and energy building enduring networks ourselves, looking at and learning from role models higher up, and not simply searching for sponsors -- but rather bringing something worthwhile to mentors or sponsors so they have quality reason to facilitate our career climb. It's like the old saying, "If we're so smart, how come......"

Lifestyle issues: 
  • motherhood, per se, rarely prompts a woman to stay put, downshift or look for work elsewhere”,
  • concern about the always-on 24/7 executive lifestyle and travel requirements”
  • attitudes among fathers and mothers are converging
Talented parents, of both gender, inspire their children by their work and professional performance.  They are not tied to their children by the apron-strings.  Parenting also is a team sport -- for men as well as for women. The family is the first, most basic, business unit that we must learn to lead and to manage effectively.

Imbedded institutional mindsets: 
  • women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential” 
If women are now in middle management in such great numbers, and especially strong in human resources fields, this "institutional mindset" is of extreme concern.  Are women under-presenting their potential?  Certainly, historically, the male hype has always been a dominant factor, but in today's performance-driven economic marketplace, should we not expect performance to prevail over the wishful thinking and hyperbole of potential?

Imbedded individual mindsets: 
·      women are, on average, less satisfied than men with their chosen professions and jobs”,
·      “as women get older, their desire to move to the next level dissipates faster than men’s desire”
·      “Women are ambitious and believe they have the qualifications—they want to make a contribution to the success of the organization. Over time, however, the barriers seem to get larger and women’s belief that there is opportunity ahead diminishes—and along with it their willingness to keep pushing.”

Beliefs, self-thought, self-convincing and self-talk are powerful persuaders.  If women are ambitious and believe they have "the right stuff" to make business succeed, where do the doubts come from? Why would they prevail? Why might women be "less satisfied?"  What would it take to "satisfy" -- are we sure we are hearing the real reasons?  Are we equally sure women are being blunt, frank and open with us about why they are not satisfied as they pack up and exit the middle ranks of corporate-dom?

Separately, McKinsey also conducted research on the topic of Centered Leadership, "How to have a more meaningful, joyful and more successful life?"  See McKinsey’s Centered Leadership research:  

Their "five core" leadership elements are almost pablum to a line-oriented business person:
  • Meaning: happiness, signature strengths, purpose
  • Managing energy: minimizing depletion, restoration, flow
  • Engaging: voice, ownership, risk-taking, adaptability
  • Connecting: network design, sponsorship, reciprocity, inclusiveness
  • Positive framing: self-awareness, learned optimism, moving on.
Touchy-feely at best. Unspecific, unverifiable in the worst sense.  The "real women in leadership" have certain styles and communication capabilities, no doubt. But, first and foremost, they are talented leaders, capable of strategic design, direction and delegation. They have a laser-like focus on the bottom line, which enables the company to succeed and the employees to have their dream job -- the job they're astounded they're actually getting paid to do every day.

Women have a great deal, themselves, that they must do to "unlock" their own full potential.