• Published December 2, 2019
  • 6 Minute Read

Women in the Workplace: Why Women Make Great Leaders & How to Retain Them

Our research found that women in the workplace want these 3 things — here’s how your organization can deliver them, and improve performance.
Published December 2, 2019
Women in the Workplace: Why Women Make Great Leaders & What You Can Do to Retain Them

Organizations that don’t realize the importance of women in the workplace are missing out. Besides doubling your talent pool, more women may also improve your company’s performance.

Previous research has shown that women in the workplace and gender diversity is key for organizations’ bottom lines:

  • Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on boards financially outperform companies with the lowest representation of women on boards.
  • Gender-diverse teams have higher sales and profits compared to male-dominated teams.
  • A recent Gallup study found that gender-diverse business units have higher average revenue than less diverse business units.

But the benefits of having more women in the workplace are not limited to just financial gains.

Women in the Workplace & Workplace Wellbeing

Having more women in the workplace actually makes an organization a better place to work, for people of all genders, our research found.

In a large survey study, we asked hundreds of respondents to estimate what percentage of individuals in their workplace were women. Answers ranged from 0–100%, with the average being about 45% (pretty close to the U.S. national workplace average). We then asked them a number of questions about their workplace environments.

Results showed that having a higher percentage of women in the workplace predicted:

  • More job satisfaction;
  • More organizational dedication;
  • More meaningful work; and
  • Less burnout.

Infographic: 4 Benefits of More Women Leaders in the Workplace - Center for Creative Leadership

But that’s not all — we found that having more women in the workplace was also positively related to employee engagement and retention. Specifically, when asked why they stay with their current employer, people from organizations with a high percentage of women were more likely to cite positive and meaningful organizational culture, including having:

  • Enjoyable work;
  • A job that fits well with other areas of their life; and
  • Opportunities to make a difference.

These new findings persist, regardless of participants’ age, industry, organization size, leadership level, ethnicity, and gender.

In fact, our findings were even stronger for men on some measures. Specifically, men reported being more satisfied with their job, enjoying their work more, and not feeling as burned out if they worked for companies that employed higher percentages of women.

3 Things Women in the Workplace Want

Given this finding, you might be considering what you can do to attract, retain, and promote women in your organization. Our study also asked women about what they want from the workplace. Here’s what we found:

Women Want a Calling — Not Just a 9-to-5

The most common reason women gave for staying with their current employer was that their job fits well with other areas of their life, followed by enjoying the work that they do, and believing that their job gives them the opportunity to make a difference.

Moreover, many women talked about having personally meaningful work that connects to their values, purpose, and work-life balance. Together, these reasons describe a specific type of employment that social scientists refer to as “a calling.” Callings are jobs that people feel drawn to pursue; find intrinsically enjoyable and meaningful; and see as a central part of their identity. Research shows that experiencing work as a “calling” is related to increased job satisfaction.

Women Want Flexibility in Where, When & How They Work

When women were asked to rate the importance of workplace perks and benefits, flexibility concerns rose to the top of the list. Paid time off was rated as the most important perk, followed by healthcare benefits, paid leadership development, flexible schedules, and opportunities to move up in the organization.

Compared to a control group of men, women also rated paid time off and working from home as higher priorities. Flexibility might be particularly critical when it comes to retaining talented women who also want to raise families — women with children rated having a flexible schedule and being able to work from home as more important compared to women who didn’t have children.

Yet, research has found that women are actually less likely to get this much-needed flexibility than men are. Stand out as a great organization for women by offering equitable flexibility.

Women Want Real Leadership Opportunities

In our sample, women were just as likely as men to be interested in raises, promotions, and leadership development opportunities. They were also just as likely to ask for and accept leadership opportunities.

But women in the workplace expressed different reasons for turning down leadership opportunities compared to men. Men typically turned down positions because they didn’t want them (e.g., not interested in the role, didn’t like the supervisor, didn’t want to relocate, didn’t want to work longer hours, or didn’t get offered enough money). While some women shared these concerns, women also uniquely mentioned that they were not confident in their qualifications, not sure that others would support them, and were worried that they were being set up for failure.

Unfortunately, research suggests that these concerns among women are valid. Studies show that organizations expect women to be more qualified than men for the same positions, and that leadership opportunities for men often come with more resources (funding, supervisor support, team size) compared to women’s leadership opportunities.

What’s more, women are more likely to get “glass cliff” positions — leadership opportunities that are high stakes, precarious, and have a high likelihood of failure.

Given this, it’s not surprising that many women said that the single most important thing organizations can do to attract and retain talented women is to admonish sexism and offer gender parity in pay, experiences, and opportunities for success.

What Organizations & Leaders Can Do to Support Women in the Workplace

Based on these findings, here are a few things organizational leaders can do to help women (and people of all genders) get what they want out of work:

  • Help employees find meaningfulness and enjoyment in their work. Take the time to learn about their personal values, passions, strengths, and life goals. Brainstorm ways to integrate these things into their career. Small changes in how work is framed and executed can go a long way toward turning a job into a calling.
  • When possible and practical, support people in working remotely, and allow them to work hours that make sense for their lives outside of work. Creative solutions such as job sharing (having multiple people share one role), virtual work teams, and sabbatical options can help employers find the best talent no matter where or when they need to work.
  • Give all genders equal opportunities to get promotions, raises, and develop their leadership skills — coupled with the resources and support system they need to achieve success. Effective leader development experiences need to be challenging, yet obtainable, with clear rewards for efforts and successes. Provide mentoring and sponsoring to support talented women with a network of champions.

We all know that working women are here to stay, but if you want talented women leaders to stay in your organization, it’s time to give women what they want from work.

These are just some of the many findings of our research report on women leaders in the workplace, based on responses from almost 750 leaders and aspiring leaders. Download our full white paper to dig deeper into our findings about women in the workplace and to learn how your organization can attract, retain, and promote top talent of all genders.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Attract and retain more women in your workplace by offering development opportunities. Explore our customized women’s leadership development. Or, partner with us to create an organizational culture where all your talent can thrive with our equity, diversity & inclusion practice.

Based on Research by

Cathleen Clerkin
Cathleen Clerkin, PhD
Former Strategic Research Manager

Cathleen is the co-author of Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life. A scientist, writer, speaker, and team leader, Cathleen has a PhD and MS in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a BS in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Cathleen is the co-author of Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life. A scientist, writer, speaker, and team leader, Cathleen has a PhD and MS in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a BS in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Women in the Workplace: Why Women Make Great Leaders & How to Retain Them
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At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world - including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.