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Alter: Companies must change to keep talented women

Sarah Alter talking

Corporate America must do more to change gender-biased workplaces that contribute to excessive turnover of women, especially those in executive roles, NEW President & CEO Sarah Alter told more than 300 senior executives at the 12th annual NEW Executive Forum, July 31 at the Omni La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California.

“We can’t keep asking women to change, if our companies don’t change with them,” Alter said. “We must focus on what is happening inside our companies, every day, at every desk, in every meeting, and in every e-mail.

“We have to do more than hire women, we have to practice active, conscious inclusion.”

Recent NEW research reveals companies have made progress in hiring and promoting women, but companies have done a poor job of keeping talented women, Alter said.  NEW’s recent “The Female Leadership Crisis” report reveals in the retail and consumer goods companies studied, turnover is significantly higher for women than for men 31 percent versus 24 percent.

The farther women advance, the more accelerated the turnover becomes. First-level and mid-level women managers are leaving at nearly double the rate of their male peers, 24 percent vs.13 percent, according to the report. For senior executive and C-suite-level women, turnover is nearly four times that of men, 27 percent vs. 7 percent.

“If nothing changes, in 10 years women will make up just 15 percent of the executive ranks in the companies we studied, compared to the 35 percent present today,” Alter said.

Alter pinpointed four deeply rooted aspects of workplace culture that are causing women, especially women executives, to leave:

Favoritism and bias is embedded in our corporate culture
“We all know that diverse teams are stronger teams,” Alter said. “But most of us are still more comfortable working with people who look or act like we do or share similar beliefs or backgrounds. We tend to favor — and in many cases — promote those people.“Whether that bias is conscious or not, it leads to unbalanced — usually very white and very male — leadership teams.”

When moving into a new role, women don’t feel supported by their managers
“We need to ensure we prepare and develop women for the next level, and support them when they get there,” Alter said. “Women need to be set up better for success.”

Women, especially at the upper levels, feel isolated
“Women experience less sense of belonging at work compared to men,” Alter said. “Of course, perceiving the workplace is biased against you contributes to a sense of not fitting in. And if you’re a woman, so does looking around and seeing few, if any, other women in the room and even fewer at levels above you.”

Work/life issues continue to take a toll on women and men
“We know that corporate cultures that value their employees’ lives outside of work are setting them up for success at work,” Alter said. “But most companies simply do not offer work arrangements that meet the demands of home life — not just for women, who are still our world’s primary caretakers, but for an increasing number of men, too.” A key to changing the face of the industry’s leadership is recognizing the very different experiences that women and men are having on the job, Alter said. “Inequalities and biases are still very much inherent in our workplaces.”