How to help women rise through the ranks

Want to retain more female employees? Appoint more women to the top.

So says Katherine Milkman, assistant professor of operations and information management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Milkman’s research explores how talented workers’ decisions are influenced by social identity, specifically analysing why people leave their companies. She and a colleague – Kathleen McGinn at Harvard Business School – examined six years of human resources data at a large law firm to determine whether higher proportions of “demographically similar” managers reduced turnover in the lower ranks.

Milkman says:

“One thing we know is that when junior women look to the leaders of their organisations, they are more likely to stay if they see leaders who look like them demographically. It could be a mentoring effect, a role model effect, or something else, but the data shows that when there are no female leaders to look up to, talented junior women are more likely to take flight.”

Retaining talent is, of course, crucial to running a successful organisation, and the lesson for companies is clear, she says.

“If women don’t look up from the lower rungs of the ladder and see people who resemble them, they are more likely to leave and either go to a competing firm or abandon the industry entirely. So to the extent that companies want to retain the best talent, it is really important to have more women at the top. It signals to talented younger women considering whether to stay or go that there is a place for them.”

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.