All Articles Leadership Inspiration How men can help high-potential women stay in the workforce

How men can help high-potential women stay in the workforce

6 min read


If you’re a man leading people in your company, chances are that you feel somewhat stymied in how to address one of the biggest talent-management problems all companies face: How to keep bright, talented women from leaving the company before they make it into the leadership ranks.

McKinsey data shows that in the pipeline, from entry level to vice president, the average company watches about 25% of its best female talent walk out the door. They’re not all leaving the workforce, but they are leaving corporate America. This women’s leadership gap, says Joanna Barsh of McKinsey, is a “canary in the coal mine” for losses of male leadership talent in other socioethnic categories as well.

Most male leaders now understand that women are good for business and that retaining women is more complicated than offering flextime and nursing stations in the bathroom. The male leaders I talk to who want to help address this problem don’t quite know what to do. They don’t feel personally sexist, and many have working wives and/or encouraging their daughters to take the world by storm.

The recommendations coming out of McKinsey and other research organizations are complicated and systemic, so leadership looks to HR to come up with solutions. Often with HR’s blessing and support, women get together under the banner of “women empowerment.” I give these workshops and have  witnessed many transformative discussions happen in these safe spaces, but these women-only conversations don’t by themselves close the leadership gap.

While I’m not recommending that men join the women’s empowerment seminars, there is a lot male leaders can do in their day-to-day work to address the talent drain problem and try to keep their best and brightest female talent. You don’t have to “understand women” to help them, either. As a matter of fact, it’s probably just as well if you don’t. Some of the biggest changes happen when you understand yourself.

Here are three opportunities sitting right in front of you.

Tell her why you believe in her. It’s a simple fact that most women don’t have the same kind of confidence in themselves the guys do — for reasons that date back to the playground. Don’t worry about all the psychology; it’s not your responsibility to give her confidence. However, you can give her reasons to be confident she’s probably never thought of before.

What you can do: Just be honest and tell her why you value and believe in her. Help her see what she’s doing that’s effective and ask her to do more of it. You can give constructive criticism, of course, but lead with the good stuff so it’s clear that she sees it. (By the way, this is a good way to help guide male employees too.)

Don’t let her get away with powerless language. Most women have been acculturated into powerless language patterns. You know it when you hear it and it often sounds like “I’ll try …” or “I know I’m not the expert, but …” Most women struggle with this. Even senior women in boardrooms use these kind of language patterns — four times more often than senior men.

What you can do: There’s usually plenty of self-doubt beneath the powerless language, but you don’t have to go there. Just help her “hear” it when she says it. You have a unique opportunity — possibly more than anyone else in her life — to help her learn to “hear” how it broadcasts her lack of confidence in ways that make her less effective at her job than she could be without it.

All you have to do is point it out to her dispassionately, as you would help her understand how to see patterns on a spreadsheet, and keep helping her see it until she begins to self-correct on her own. Tell her she doesn’t need to apologize or qualify herself. If you mean it, she’ll begin to believe it, too.

Confront your own biases, and help her confront hers, too.

Everyone has biases. It’s how our brains are wired. Being biased is not the same as being sexist. Being biased just means you’re human and that there are certain beliefs and assumptions you have about — everything — including women and men in the workplace. Even efforts to be helpful reveal bias, like believing that working moms “deserve a break,” which might lead you to be ok with a mom running out the door at 5 p.m. for daycare pickup and dumping an unfinished project on her female and male colleagues who don’t have children.

Of course, moms (and dads) do need a break in our 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. work culture when daycare charges $10 for every minute she’s late after 6 p.m., but your “helpful” bias may be breeding resentment among your non-parent employees that will cause you other headaches down the road. You can’t get rid of your biases, but you can understand and own them in ways that can help you be biased in more useful ways.

What you can do: Take the judgment away and be honest — at least with yourself at first — about your beliefs and biases. Challenge them and look for evidence that can help you evolve them into things you choose to believe instead of things that unconsciously drive your behavior. When you have chosen what to believe, go public with them and challenge others to own up to their biases and beliefs — including the women themselves! Have a workshop with women and men that helps them own their biases – and make sure to participate personally so everyone sees that this stuff matters!

Good leaders are self-aware. These strategies will help you address a demographic talent management problem you have, and they will also help you lead women and men of all demographics more consciously and more effectively.

Do you know a high-potential female employee who can take her game up a notch by communicating with more confidence? Recommend that she participate in this complimentary webinar to learn some simple tricks with deep impact.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting creating business cultures by design that integrate the lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.