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Why ambitious women disconnect at work—and how to reconnect them

Every organization I talk to today seems to have doubled down on their diversity efforts lately—particularly around the recruitment and retention of women. But why bother? According to this study from Bain&Company, companies drain women's aspirations after just two years. At that rate, putting effort into bolstering women’s leadership could seem to employers like trying to fill a bucket that has a hole in it.

What’s the problem? Why do young, confident, ambitious women completely change after two years in the workforce?

My theory is that they feel disconnected. Disconnected from their organization, their peers, and themselves. And for a gender which finds emotional connection critical to their wellbeing, I’m guessing the world of work is a pretty disappointing and disillusioning place after just a couple of years. I’m also guessing that most women feel like they have been sold a bill of goods and wonder why they worked so hard to get to where they are when the end game doesn’t feel like they thought it would.

I think many women find themselves wondering “What are we doing? Why should we care about this? What is the purpose?” We need to create more emotional connection for them. We need to help them see their connection to the organization’s mission. We need to provide more opportunities for them to connect with each other.

We need to restructure work so that women can stay connected to themselves.

The way we work now isn’t working for more than half of our workforce. If we are going to ask women to be a majority of our workforce, then let’s get serious about creating workplaces where they can thrive instead of sucking the life out of them after just two short years.

Here’s how:

1. Create a Flexible Work Culture

Drafting a few flexible work policies is not enough. Next, you need to build real cultural support. Promote flex, regularly. Train managers. Hold managers accountable for supporting flexible work requests. Reward employees for performance—not face-time.

2. Offer Paid Maternity Leave

It’s far past time for the U.S. to offer paid maternity leave. American mothers deserve better. American employers can do better. Seriously. Let’s #leadonleave.

3. Provide New Parent Career Coaching

Re-engineer the maternity experience at your company with re-introduction programs, keep-in-touch days, and career coaching. Career coaches help new parents plan ahead for leave and create a sustainable return-to-work plan. They can also coach employees through having those sometimes-intimidating conversations with managers.

4. Rethink Career Progression

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that one of the key reasons women are stepping back, instead of leaning in, is because they don’t believe they can have the life they want in positions of power. To ensure talented women stay on track for leadership, companies must provide role models—people in executive positions who model attractive work-life fit. But first, that may require structuring what it takes, in your company, to get to the top.

5. Train Leaders to See Whole People

Managers are treating employees like resources to be maximized, not whole people. What they need is training around how to help people build resiliency and avoid burnout, so they can create work environments where people feel supported and want to stay.

As a principal of Life Meets Work, Teresa Hopke plays a lead role in the company’s strategic direction and consulting projects. She specializes in helping organizations close the leadership skills gap, manage through change, and develop custom coaching solutions that help people thrive in both the workplace and their personal lives. Learn more about Teresa and the team, and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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