Friday, February 18, 2011

The business case for hiring – and retaining – women

Lianne Lefsrud

Yes, it would be nice to see more women enter careers in trades, technology, science and engineering.

But there’s an even bigger challenge: keeping them.

That’s according to Lianne Lefsrud, of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades & Technology (WinSETTCentre).

Lianne will be presenting ‘Putting Fuel in the Tank: Best Practices in Promoting Diversity and Innovation’ at Fueling the Future, and has researched and written extensively about women in non-traditional occupations.

Statistics show that the numbers of women entering science, engineering, trades and technology (SETT) have flattened out in recent years, and, in some cases – such as engineering – actually declined, Lianne said, in an interview.

“The largest issue is one of retention,” she said. “As many as 50 percent of qualified women are dropping out of their professions within 10 years. So it’s not just a pipeline issue, where we need to keep people coming in, it’s also a retention issue. We have to keep those trained, talented, educated people in the pipeline, and we’re losing them right now. We have a leaky pipeline. It’s like, ‘Holy crap, what’s going on here?’.”

Research shows that several systemic barriers work, often in combination, to steer women off their non-traditional career paths.

“People talk about work-life balance, and that’s part of it,” Lianne said. “But more than anything, employees need to see a future for themselves. People define success in different ways and, for women, it’s more than work-life balance. It’s imagining what success could look like for them, and how they might work with their bosses, mentors, colleagues and others within an organization, to say ‘how could this work for me?’ ‘How could I get work that’s challenging, that feels like I’m making a contribution, and where my contribution is valued, and people recognize and appreciate it, and I can see where I will be in this organization five or 10 years from now.”

If an employer can create a career path that is more clearly delineated, that can help mitigate other issues that eventually drive women away from their careers, Lianne added.

“More than anything, if a corporation can create that vision, that imagined future, for an individual, they can overcome a whole bunch of things. It solves mentoring problems. It solves work-life problems. For example, if a new parent, with the usual childcare issues, can see that they could be VP of operations five years out, with a plan to get there, that helps. The proactive companies are the ones anticipating that… they’re paying for child care, or providing extra training so women can come in two or three times over the maternity leave, stay connected to the company, keep their skills sharp and still feel involved. I mean, I’ve got two kids, and when you are sitting at home, you feel pretty disconnected from the company. You need to keep those connections alive.”

Yes, a bit of effort is required on the employer’s behalf.  And that’s the whole point of Lianne’s presentation: women are worth it. For more reasons than you might expect; reasons that go beyond social responsibility and have dramatic impacts on the bottom line.

“Our research shows that women’s increased participation and advancement in SETT can bring significant economic benefit to businesses,” Lianne said. “It’s a compelling business case that has been articulated by leaders across all sectors, and supported by research findings. If a company can attract a female employee, there are some pretty powerful reasons why they should work to retain that person.”

Following is the abstract for Lianne’s presentation, ‘Putting Fuel in the Tank: Best Practices in Promoting Diversity and Innovation’:

In an increasingly global and publicly scrutinized industry, the continued success of Canada’s oil and gas industry depends integrally upon its capacity to innovate. Companies are under pressure to attract, retain, and leverage those employees who are most able to fuel their innovation engines. In line with the goal of this conference, the purpose of this presentation is to answer the following questions: How are diversity and innovation linked? The business case: what’s in it for business? What are the challenges specific to technical types like engineers and technologists? What corporate/individual initiatives make a difference? We draw from our experience in industry, regulation, and business research to answer these questions. Our focus will be to share best practices and practical guidance for promoting diversity and innovation by companies, industry associations, and governments.

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

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