Will Client Pressure be the Tipping Point for Women?

I’ve been working with companies on developing women leaders for the past 20 years. In that time, I’ve seen women’s programs and leadership initiatives go through 3 stages. Each has used a different strategy and each has been driven by different concerns. As you’ll see, I believe we’re at a point where women’s leadership initiatives are about to get more serious and more effective because the concern driving them has become a real imperative.

In Stage One, though much of the 1990s, companies were mostly focused on attracting high quality women.

Most experts in this period believed that women’s leadership was a pipeline issue: if you could get enough good women in the door, you would automatically have women positioned for leadership in 10-15 years time. As long as a company made sure that the numbers were good, and that the women coming in had opportunities to develop their skills and perceived the company as a good place to work (flex time, a lack of obvious discrimination), the problem of women’s leadership would take care of itself.

The impetus behind women’s programs in these years often came from a desire to be compliant with government or industry mandates requiring workforce equality. It also came from a recognition that women worked better in companies that they perceived as fair.

In Stage Two, which lasted from the late nineties until 2009, women’s initiatives began to focus on retention rather than attraction as companies and experts began to realize that just feeding the pipeline was never going to be enough.

Although more and more companies—especially professional service firms—were hiring at parity (that is, near 50 percent), women were still not making it to the top in proportion to their numbers.The result was the widely noted “Female Brain Drain” noted by fellow Forbes blogger Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Quite simply, many of the best women–– the women with the most choices–– were leaving companies that had hired and in many cases nurtured their talent.

As Julie Johnson and I found in our book The Female Vision, many of these women had grown weary of battling a difficult culture and had decided that what they were doing “just wasn’t worth it.” They didn’t want out of the workforce, but they did want work that felt more intrinsically satisfying—work that gave them more ability to control their pace, more capacity to develop rewarding relationships with customers, clients, and colleagues.

Companies that began women’s initiatives in this era were usually motivated by the recognition that they were wasting resources and talent. Despite the recession kicked off in 2008, many leaders were recognizing that their dependence on talent was structural in a knowledge economy. It didn’t make sense to invest in employees only to have them leave, so companies began to turn attention to what they could do to keep good women. They set mentoring programs in place and began to adapt principles of workforce customization such as were detailed in Anne Weisberg and Cathy Benko’s research.

Stage 3, in my view, is just beginning, and we’re not sure just what it’s going to look like yet. My guess is that instead of focusing on retention, companies are going to be trying to figure out how to strategically integrate their women’s initiatives into their long-term business goals.

In other words, they’re going to be moving beyond a silo’d hr-based approach (attraction, retention, flex time), and looking at the big picture: where are they going and what specifically can women provide that will help them get there?

Why do I think this? How dare I be optimistic in a time of such uncertainty? For a simple reason: I think the pressure to move women into meaningful leadership positions is coming from a much more powerful source these days: it’s coming clients. I hear more and more stories about potential client pushback to heavily male leadership these days.

For example, I recently interviewed the male CEO of a computer components company. The company is heavily male, but it has never regarded this as a problem because it is privately owned and women are not a top priority with the founders, who still hold the majority of stock. But the CEO got a wake-up call recently when he made a major client call at one of the world’s largest purchasers of components.

The CEO said, “I walked into that meeting with a team of 9 engineers, all white males. The client’s VP for purchasing was an African-American woman, and the team she had in place was highly diverse. I knew who she was, but I had never thought of it making a difference for us until I walked into that room. I saw immediately, having 9 white guys here isn’t going to count in our favor because it makes us look like we’re behind the curve, like either we can’t hire women or we can’t keep them around. At that moment I got it: more and more people in client leadership positions come from different backgrounds and this is not going to change. And if we don’t change, we’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.”

Client skepticism is something executives take seriously. I think it’s going to lead us to a very different place in terms of the efforts companies make to develop the best talents of their women. In my next blog, I’ll explore what this means for different kinds of companies.