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.”

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