Though women still remain grossly underrepresented in positions of leadership across almost every industry, the good news is that many organizations are starting to prioritize gender diversity. And it’s no surprise why — gender diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform their peers, and companies led by women tend to have better working conditions and fewer layoffs. Prioritizing the advancement of women isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
But gender parity continues to elude many well-intentioned businesses. Despite their best efforts, they are unable to meet their diversity goals, especially at the highest ranks of leadership. This is because the programs and initiatives being implemented to fix the problem, while worthy and important, treat the symptoms of gender inequity rather than the underlying cause.
Take returnship, for example. Returnship programs focus on helping employees transition back into the workforce after an extended hiatus. While both men and women utilize returnship programs, women are more likely to leave the workforce than men due to childcare responsibilities. The data on returnship indicates that while 74 percent of off-ramped women return to the workforce, only 40 percent are able to return to full-time, professional jobs. Many women end up taking pay cuts and demotions, making advancement to leadership more difficult and less likely.
That said, returnship programs serve an important and necessary purpose: getting women back into the workforce, many of whom were structurally forced out. While some women genuinely want to take a hiatus, many do not. In fact, of the 30 percent of talented women who opt out, 70 percent say they would have kept working if they had access to one simple thing: flexibility.
Today, companies tend to design and invest in policies that assume that leaving the workforce is an inevitability for women. Companies that rely solely on returnship, for example, often fail at creating long term gender diversity because they’re treating the symptoms, not the cause. By operating under the flawed assumption that leaving the workforce is inevitable, the leadership gap becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To close the leadership gap for good, we must stop focusing on treating the symptoms of gender inequity—instead, we must ask ourselves why women leave the workforce in the first place. What are the structural barriers we’re up against and how can we break them down? What would work look like if women had invented it?
Those are the questions we asked ourselves for over a year before coming to the conclusion that flexibility is the key to creating and maintaining gender diverse environments. Women have been structurally pushed out of the workforce for too long, and creating space for them to return after having children is merely a bandaid solution. By not tackling the root of the problem, however well intentioned, we are continuing to accommodate and enable an inherently flawed and unequal system that disproportionately disadvantages women.
That’s why we created Werk — because based on the data, we believe, unequivocally, that flexibility is the best, most cost effective way to tackle the source of this problem. With strategic flexibility, organizations can provide women with the same opportunities as their male counterparts to keep working, get promoted, and advance to positions of leadership over time. With strategic flexibility, organizations can achieve the gender diversity goals they need to succeed in today’s market.