“What’s next” for our future female leaders?

Guest post by Cornelia Kunze, vice chair of Edelman APACMEA and Edelman APACMEA Steering Committee Leader for GWEN.

Today, December 3, Edelman takes an important next step in our Global Women’s Executive Network (GWEN) initiative in the Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa (APACMEA) region. We now have in place a new region-wide HR policy for flexible working arrangements in addition to other related local HR policies, created to help women (and men) to continue with their careers at Edelman while still being able to manage family commitments. This policy is not the only, but probably the most important action the regional leadership team is implementing as a mandatory measure to achieve our internal goal for this region of having 35 percent senior female leadership within three years from now.

The internal support and cheers we received just for debating the requirement was amazing and interesting. Most people do not question the urgent need for better talent retention in most companies, as the talent crunch becomes imminent in many markets and the cost of recruitment hurts. In Japan in particular, an increase of women in the workforce is a national priority to help tackle the grim economic outlook there.

One of the questions that struck me was about whether there really is a gender-specific barrier to careers; whether it isn`t all on the individual to decide and influence how fast and successful they are moving forward in their work life, especially in a meritocracy such as ours. Far too often the illustrious examples of the women at the very top of just a few organizations is used as a proof point. The answer lies in understanding why we face a disproportionate drop in the number of women at every stage in their careers – in our company and most others as well.

In our region, it boils down to societal norms: men are encouraged to be the breadwinners, women to be the homemakers. I have had hundreds of conversations with women on how to juggle the traditional expectations of their families with wanting to pursue their careers. Often enough none of the conflicting stakeholders – work and family – seems to want to compromise, with both parties trying to squeeze the most out of women.

We are in a service business. Many clients have the expectation of 24/7 availability, just because they can and because cellphone reach allows it. I`ve heard of women who declined a 12-month job opportunity abroad because their family didn’t want them to live in the West alone; others who resigned because they had to organize their wedding; and others who left their jobs because their husbands see their careers as an offense to their ability to be the breadwinner. Whereas working on weekends is sometimes seen as a symbol of success for a man, doing the same for a woman is seen as negligence of her duties at home.

We`ve now embarked on this GWEN program for our region that focuses on retaining women who are great managers and future leaders. We are more flexible in making it easier for mothers – and as a matter of principal and equality for all dads as well – to choose to care for children or elderly parents. We know that it is not always easy. Those who run a local business need to juggle clients who expect availability, colleagues who do not have family responsibilities and don`t always understand the situations of those who do and, of course, their own families. But who should offer them a hand if we do not? We should, as a leading firm in a sector where women form the majority of our employees.

The female leaders of the future are going to ask “What`s next?” They want to know what`s in it for them, how they can best align work and life. If we want to keep them, we have to take a step in their direction.

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