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Let's say a woman takes a break from her career to take on a different job — having and caring for children. That often means she missed out on advancement opportunities, and progressively higher remuneration, when she returns to the workplace.
Experts say scenarios like this continue to impact women most in this day and age. But increasingly, employers and employees alike are looking at strategies to maximize women's chances of maintaining her professional status during her years away from the workplace.
“When people take a break from work — and I think, increasingly, men do that as well — if they're intending to go back into the workforce, they could continue to stay active educationally or certification-wise, or maybe volunteer,” says Debby Olken, business development director for KMA Human Resources Consulting in Falmouth. “So they have a gap in staff work but they've augmented their experience during their hiatus in paid work, and they've done it in a way that adds value to their career track.”
Workplace issues can affect women and men differently, causing advancement and remuneration disparities. The gender wage disparity is well-known. The latest studies show women working the same jobs as men are paid on average 80% what men are paid, affecting both immediate income and retirement savings.
But other circumstances also affect women's ability to get ahead, things like career breaks for child and elder care, and a lack of career reinforcement programs like mentoring. Even helpful strategies can have unintended consequences: Work-at-home flexibility, for example, can mean missing out on face time with colleagues and clients. These are issues that affect men, too — fathers increasingly handle child care as mothers continues their career tracks — and mitigating strategies are equally applicable. But women remain disproportionately impacted. As in the example above, HR professionals and recruiters are on the lookout for those mitigating strategies to ensure female employees are where they want to be on the career track. And, they agree, it's important to keep the discussion going.
Baker Newman Noyes, the Portland-based accounting firm, is doing just that, with its women's initiative program, says Jennifer Harnish, the firm's director of human resources.
While historically male-dominated, the accounting profession is seeing a greater balance between women and men — and Baker Newman is an example of that. But that creates other challenges.
“Several years ago, one of our principals had the idea to create a space for the women of the firm to support each other and discuss the challenges they face in the accounting profession,” says Harnish. “Our firm is about 50% women. By forming the women's initiative, we've created an organized voice for women within the firm.”
Now in its second year, the group meets three to four times per year and is seeking to partner with other women's groups.
“Our group creates a space to support women and is tailored to what they identify as their top needs. We also offer some of the program topics to men because it's important to create the awareness about how the genders can work differently and what that means when it comes to things like business development, mentoring or stress,” Harnish says.
“That's changing the landscape,” she adds. “Women tend to feel more responsible for maintaining a balance between work and family — a stress under which men may present differently.”
Portland law firm Bernstein Shur is addressing those questions through evolving policies and practices designed to improve female attorney retention through the gap years and to eliminate any potential gender pay gap as new attorneys join the firm, says shareholder Joan Fortin, who is director of attorney recruiting.
Fortin comes to the discussion as someone involved in a profession that tends to lose women.
“Nationally, women are graduating from law school and entering firms in roughly equal numbers as men, but by time you get to the upper equity partner level, there's a much lower percentage of women equity partners,” Fortin says. “I don't think about the loss of senior women attorneys as a discrimination issue — I think about it more as an issue that needs attention through policies and practices that will help law firms to create better work environments that will allow more women to remain actively engaged in the private practice of law throughout the span of their careers.”
It's especially challenging to retain women attorneys who are new mothers and who aspire to make partner.
“From what I can see, women still tend to be the primary caregivers, even though I'm sure it's much more equal than it was in the past,” she says. “That comes from at least two directions. Some of it is societal expectations, and some is that many women don't want to give up being the primary caregiver. I put myself in that category.”
It's difficult to maintain a work-life balance when new parents are also trying to become an expert in their field and develop a client base.
“There are a lot of demands on their time,” Fortin says. “That's when we can lose people — male and female.”
To buck the trend, Bernstein Shur has taken several steps: It matches women attorneys with female mentors whenever practical. It has adopted a progressive parental leave policy. And it allows for flexible work arrangements. The firm is also considering a policy that would allow new parents to bring infants to work during the early months.
It's hard to determine the success of such initiatives, Fortin says. But the firm is seeing a cultural shift: “We have a lot of male attorneys taking parental leave and spending four weeks at home with their infants,” she says. “That wasn't even an option 20 years ago. Given the work culture at the time, I don't think men would have taken advantage of that. But they are doing so now. I'm sure there were men who wanted to do that all along, but it wasn't generally acceptable then.”
Though well-meaning, such alternative arrangements can sabotage long-term workplace success in other ways. Telecommuting, for example, allows employees of both genders to meet family responsibilities, while allowing them to work. But one lawyer cites potential pitfalls.
“The problem I see, as a partner in a law firm, is that a lot of advancement is built on relationships. If I have a particularly interesting hearing and I walk by an associate's office, I say, 'Do you want to come along?' and it's a learning opportunity,” says Anne-Marie Storey, who practices employment law at Rudman Winchell in Bangor. “If you're not there, you might get overlooked — not intentionally, but just because you're not there. And if you don't get to know the people who ultimately will determine whether you'll become partner, that's also a disadvantage. Even the way assignments are given — that person might not come immediately to mind.”
Still, the impact isn't entirely negative.
“As a new associate, I used to be very vocal that women have to be treated exactly the same way as men,” Storey says. “As time went on, I realized that a lot of women are making the choice — 'I don't want to work 100 hours a week. I want to raise my child.' That, to me, is just as empowering as saying, 'I want to be a partner and work 100 hours per week.' The crux of the whole thing is about having that choice. It's an area fraught with emotion and disagreement, but the good thing is that, if people keep talking about it, everyone will understand the issues and make their own decisions.”
Harnish says challenges around alternative working arrangements are fading with younger generations, and that women and men alike are interested in these opportunities.
“Our younger workforce prefers to have more flexibility, which means they're more virtual and they can reach the same goals and expectations as their colleagues in a more traditional setting at the office,” she says. “When we're recruiting students and recent graduates, they are asking, does it matter when or where I work?”
There are no easy answers for these issues, and there's no magic bullet for the pay gap, experts agree. They also agree that they haven't seen any intentional discrimination.
“We don't hear employers saying, 'Well, I'll pay this amount to a man applying for the job but I'll pay a different amount to a female applicant,'” Olken says.
Fortin agrees. Even so, she says, a systematic approach to determining salaries for new hires and promotions is useful.
“One of the first things I did was to create a chart listing all new attorney hires with a description of the different factors that went into their offers,” she says. “That was my rudimentary effort to make sure we were being consistent and that women were getting offers that were as good as offers that went to men.”
Fortin also offers appropriate salaries right off the bat.
“I absolutely do not shoot low with the expectation that someone's going to negotiate up,” she says.
Fortin cites the book “Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide,” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, a book that still resonates a nearly 15 years after being published by Princeton University Press. Women tend to accept the first offer put before them, whereas men are likely to negotiate for more. “So I try to figure out the appropriate salary and offer that, and then hold firm,” she says.
Experts also agree that mentorship is key for helping women understand how to advocate for themselves, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields.
“It's really important for women to support other women,” says Gina Tapp, the city of Portland's director of human resources. “I think in the past there's been an established way for that to happen naturally with men” — like doing business on the golf course. “A lot of those informal structures are already in place for men, and might not be for women, so we need to create that same kind of networking to help bring people along.”
Mentoring is important, says Harnish, not only for career advancement, per se, but for promoting awareness of how women and men might work differently.
“Women tend to be more collaborative and take a team approach, and men tend to take full credit,” Harnish says. “That difference is something we do mentoring and coaching around — for women to say, 'I did this,' and to be proud about that.”
She's seeing a cultural shift: “We're seeing younger people who know what they want. They're confident, they're driven. Isn't that what we want in our future leaders?”