How to Attract and Retain Top Women Leaders

Imagine your team standing in front of you right now.

Now imagine that each one of them is similar to the other: Each person is of the same age and sex and has similar perspectives, skills, and talents.

How would this affect your team’s ability to see different perspectives and to come up with unique and creative solutions?

How would it affect their ability to work with synergy, purpose, and to achieve the best results possible?

Likely, these things would be difficult to do.

This is why it’s important that women are well represented in leadership roles, points out Mary Hughes, founder of Close the Gap CA, an organization committed to increasing the number of women in the California legislature. After all, women make up half the talent pool: If they’re underrepresented in leadership positions, then your company is undoubtedly missing out on a unique and valuable set of viewpoints, skills and priorities that only women can bring to the table.

In today’s conversation with Mary, we discuss the critical importance of women leaders and what companies and individuals alike can do to help recruit, attract and retain the talent necessary to bring their performance to the next level.

 A Conversation with Mary Hughes, Founder of Close the Gap CA

mary-hughes2Q: Can you describe your background and how it led to the work that you do today?

Mary: I’ve always been interested in and active on behalf of women’s rights, stemming from my time at Mount Holyoke College. I departed from that slightly through my years of law school and practicing law, but I was very much drawn to elections and campaigns and the strategy behind them. When I left law school to pursue political work full time, it was really to work on behalf of women. Like many people’s paths, mine was not a straight one, but it makes complete sense when I look back on it.

Q: What drew you to this kind of work initially?

Mary: Women are incredibly smart, productive, able, purposeful and high-minded. Whether it is taking care of a family, running a small business, or being part of the larger working world within someone else’s company, not enough of these qualities are present generally in our economy, in our businesses, or in the leadership of the country. I’d love to see more of that, and I’m motivated to see such traits and contributions get their just due.

Q: Can you elaborate on why it is so important to have women in leadership roles?

Mary: I’ll answer from a women’s political leadership perspective. In that context, it is very clear that we have big, challenging issues, including dealing with a changing economy, global competition, and setting standards and meeting those standards for a world-class education. It takes a lot of smart people to figure these things out and they don’t happen overnight. These are evolutionary, iterative processes. We try something, we make it a little better, and we try again.

When you are in a position of changing big systems, you need as much talent and perspective as possible. There are many different ways to look at an issue. Women approach issues differently, and in doing so, we have different priorities, different life experiences, and bring a whole new set of skills and potential to the table. Without women at that table, those perspectives and solutions would not exist, and it would take twice as long to get it done.

Essentially, women make up half of the talent pool in the country. We need 100% of the talent working on these big issues, so we need many more women participating and leading.

Q: What has kept us as a society from “closing the gap,” and what is needed in order to continue to do so?

Mary: There are signs that some gaps are closing. More women are coming out of graduate schools and more women are competing in the work place with all of the right credentials. But invariably, women’s lives are different from men’s: Women take time out to raise children and/or to take care of parents and in-laws. Women are the primary keepers of families, and most institutions and businesses, in particular, do not accommodate the flexibility required to do that on a day-to-day basis or the woman who takes a career time out” for these responsibilities. When someone chooses to be a mother, there is a penalty that accrues to that. It is both unintended and unfortunate, but there hasn’t been a real willingness to make significant changes to accommodate real life.

If you look at the biographies of many women who hold top corporate positions, many of them have lived like men. They do not have children, and if they have partners, they share domestic responsibilities. We’re a society that says we value family, but we do little to bring our institutions into line with that priority. These barriers are tough to knock down. For women, being single-mindedly focused on work is not the definition of a full life.

Q: As “ordinary people,” what can we do to help close this gap?

Mary: As more women ascend to top positions in government, the private and nonprofit sectors, expectations will rise and more women will follow. To speed up the process, we can all do something.

Look around the board room and ask: where are the women? Always recommend and nominate women: for promotions, appointments, commissions, boards and to run for office. Encourage women colleagues to pursue advancement and when women succeed, celebrate success. Point to these women as examples of success and of what we’re missing when we don’t allow talent to rise to the top.

It’s also important for people to recognize when companies do make adjustments, whether it’s flexible time, sabbaticals, or whatever it is that makes it easier to be someone who is both satisfied in work and producing, but also who has responsibilities for the family. We need to make sure that the adjustments that are made are not solely for women, but for men as well. We raise strong families when we have both maternity and paternity leave, not just one of those.

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Visit the Close the Gap CA website for more information on Mary Hughes and her work with women in politics.

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