Middle-management is typically the level at which the employee-employer engagement shifts gears –organizations focus on recognizing and nurturing promising employees, preparing them for bigger challenges as employees take the next step towards their long-term career goals. For women managers, paradoxically, this is also when they need the most flexibility as they navigate through important life events, including marriage, child-birth and related familial responsibilities. These conflicting demands alongside the lack of flexibility have led to more women in mid-management roles quitting their jobs than ever before. Consider the statistics: In India, 50% of all working women leave the workforce between junior and middle management levels compared to 29% across Asia – a significantly higher rate.
Deeper analysis of this paradox coupled with conversations with working women highlight various factors that contribute to the exodus of experienced women from the workplace. These factors can be broadly classified into three key areas:
Tackling the Virgo-Venus conundrum: A recent Harvard University report states that several socio-economic factors contribute to the trend of educated women falling off the employment grid in the country . Even today, the Indian society expects women to play the “nurturing” role at home, caring for children and elderly. These expectations are often subconsciously internalized by both women and men. For women to work, take on challenging assignments, travel or relocate for a better job, family consent and support remains a key factor – across different strata of the society. As a result, educated and capable women often quit their jobs for reasons such as marriage and other domestic priorities as dictated by social norms. Women who stay employed and seek career advancement continue to face discrimination at the workplace as a result of the subconscious bias, leaving them with little incentive to push forward in their careers.
Motherhood and related responsibilities further compound the situation. Worldwide, women’s gross earnings have been shown to drop by 30% after their first child, and over the long term, mothers earn 20% less . The effects of motherhood penalty go beyond pay inequities. A 2017 World Bank report on Indian women at the workplace identifies ‘motherhood penalty’ as one of the primary reasons for women leaving work, despite increasing educational qualifications. Working mothers continue to be the primary caregivers and are often torn between their commitment towards their families and their dedication to work. The lack of reliable childcare facilities and safety concerns add to the conundrum that women face. When confronted with juggling the growing responsibilities and stress that accompanies middle management roles in the workplace and their responsibilities as a care-giver, women often choose the latter.
Prevalence of informal boys’ networks: Informal networking becomes more important as one rises through the ranks. The prevalence of the proverbial “boys clubs” across middle layers of the organization makes it extremely difficult for women of the same level to feel truly included. Some of the most important workplace decisions are often discussed, formalized and agreed upon at these casual meetings which happen over meal after work hours or a round of golf. These informal cliques are an expression of solidarity, and a strong source of support for mentoring and knowledge sharing of workplace practices and developments. They often leave women feeling excluded and less valued in middle management - despite their achievements at the workplace. The importance of such networks for women leaders is, however, slowly gaining ground. For instance, Chief is a female executive network that aims to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for women on their way up to the executive level. It is modeled after the Young President’s Organization (YPO) – the male dominated global organization for CEOs.
Lack of role-models and opportunities: Only 14.2% of the Board of Directors of BSE 100 companies are women. Furthermore, a mere 7% of those in key management positions are women. The lack of female representation in the upper echelons sends the message that hard work doesn’t take you far, if you are a woman. It also leaves working women with fewer role models to emulate. The latest Women in the Workplace report states that women also have limited access to senior leadership either formally or via informal meetings. This puts them at a disadvantage as such meetings help increase visibility and opens doors to relevant opportunities. Women also lack access to experienced mentors who can guide and help them navigate the dynamics within the organization to progress in their careers.
Women also have different workplace issues, needs and concerns as compared to men as they reach the middle level and try to assimilate themselves successfully into management roles – a fact often ignored by organizations. In addition, studies show that although all employees receive similar training and development through formal programs, women receive fewer critical on-the-job experiences, which is essential for them to move up the corporate ladder. Clearly, there exists a gap between policy and implementation at most organizations.
In 2017, women accounted for only 7% of senior management roles. For women to grow and succeed in the middle echelons, it’s important to look beyond setting diversity targets or developing policies. Adopt a more holistic approach to ensure real results. Begin by conducting an in-depth of study to understand the social and emotional impact of middle management roles on the women in your organization, and the type of support they seek to flourish and advance. As a next step, create support networks specifically designed to empower, mentor and advance women in the organization. Follow this through by promoting more women to leadership roles and enhancing their visibility, and offering flexi-work and developmental training. GM is a great example of a company that has been able to turn its culture around by adopting a holistic approach to nurture women at all levels. The company claimed the top spot for gender equality in 2018. It dominated the rankings for not only having a female CEO and CFO but also ensuring pay equality across all bands, and offering flexible hours and locations.