For the last four decades, gender disparities have been a focus of the U.S. workplace. Pay and promotion of women often lag behind that of men. Salaries and child-care responsibilities are often cited as the most obvious reasons. The solution advanced is higher pay for women and more flexible child care arrangements.

The digital workplace has only made these differences clearer.

It is increasingly obvious that this pattern exists for multiple reasons, and that the reasons may vary by position and industry, to name just two variables. More granular information is needed to explore the reason for gender disparity issues and develop plans for rectifying them.

One of the variables is retention. While retention is not synonymous with advancement in pay and position — as the U.S. Military Leadership Diversity Commission notes, people may be retained but not promoted and promoted but not retained. Companies generally need to retain employees. They need to be promoted into higher earning positions, senior management, and positions where they can develop greater and more valuable business leadership skills. Retention is, therefore, a key variable in assessing gender disparities.

How to Retain

A recent Harvard Business Review article focuses on the consulting business to note that, in this sector, relationships and an apprenticeship model are highly important. They are key to accessing a promotional path. Yet a study at a particular company showed women scored low in their apprenticeship program.

As a result, a plan for increasing relationship ties, fostering strength development, and coaching on communication styles were developed and implemented.

Five years on, the number of women promoted to senior management has risen by 22%. The attrition rate is down 5%.

Part of the plan was to respond to employee feedback from both genders that indicated that reviews focused too much on areas needing development. To rectify this, managers were encouraged to link strengths with needs for development. The example? Rather than telling a quiet apprentice that they needed to speak up more in meetings, for example, managers were encouraged to focus on a strength — good insights or observations — and to link the “speak up more” directive to encourage them to share their insights.

As a result, the number of employees who believed reviews focused too much on areas needing improvement fell 18%.

Managers were also encouraged to strengthen relationships within the firm in four areas:

  • making relationship connections
  • wanting success for individuals
  • advising
  • making sure relationships were maintained even if no projects were ongoing.

Very specific suggestions were given, such as using downtime on business trips to enhance relationships.

The bottom line? Gender parity was reached for mid-career managers, with an equal percentage of men and women being retained. Women employees show increased satisfaction. Their satisfaction with retention efforts has risen 20 percentage points. More senior women managers show even higher levels of satisfaction, with an increase of 30 percentage points.