Post from Deauville: breaking the age barrier

A new report from the management consultancy Bain & Company, Flexible Work Models – How to bring sustainability to a 24/7 world, launched at the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in Deauville, looks into the problem of how to retain men and women in high-pressure jobs. The respondents typically work more than 40 hours per week, travel regularly, and have multiple elements in their job which leads to high pressure. For example, some have an unpredictable work flow and have to be available to clients 24/7.

The survey found that as women age they tend to drop out of these jobs at a greater rate. In the age group 46-55, for example, 47 per cent of male respondents had five or more high-pressure job elements compared with only 28 per cent of women. All this will be familiar to many followers of the gender issue. The question Bain wanted to answer, however, was why companies were not catching on to the key challenge of retaining female talent and devising solutions that work more effectively, one of which is clearly offering flexible work options.

However, Bain has found that offering flexible work options is not enough to change behaviour. It has to be something people feel comfortable about taking up. According to the survey, 60 per cent of the companies covered offered flexible work models but they were widely used in only 17 per cent of those organisations. The report also found that the effective implementation of flexible work models can improve retention of both men and women – increasing retention of women by up to 40 per cent and men by up to 25 per cent.

Julie Coffman, a partner at Bain & Company, is in Deauville discussing the report. She says that the culture of a company can be a barrier to change in this area. Almost 40 per cent of the respondents to the survey said they would be concerned about using flexible options because they would fear the loss of respect from their supervisors and around 20 per cent said they would worry about losing the respect of their peers. Another significant group (just under 20 per cent) said they would feel guilty or anxious about not working as hard.

But this does not explain why more corporate leaders are not making sure the culture is changed. There are many reasons, says Coffman, why it is imperative for companies to increase the involvement of women in senior positions such as the contribution they may make with their (in some cases) greater empathy, listening and negotiating skills. However, can you show an ROI on empathy to a chief executive? Maybe, this lack of consistent hard evidence is the reason why more chief executives do not become sufficiently engaged in the issue to really change things.

Morice Mendoza is a director of Mendozamedia, a communications company

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