Books - Not doing it for themselves

If women are to progress at work, we need firms to champion best practice, argues this author. Nicola Mendelsohn is impressed, but where's the role model material?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Apart from the obvious moral, social and political reasons for women having the opportunity to fulfil their potential in the workplace, economic viability for most families today has required two people to work. And as welfare systems are redesigned to encourage work rather than dependency, the challenge of supporting women in work has become an important one for modern managers.

There is little available literature that addresses these questions with any practical sense of how we can adapt the business environment. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Off-Ramps and On-Ramps is an attempt to address how best to foster women in the workplace and retain and exploit their potential.

Hewlett's credentials are impressive. A long-term campaigner and writer in the US about women and work issues (although actually British), she sets out her thesis that in today's talent war, the old rules are being eroded and workaholism has become pervasive. Women, although not opting out, are stepping back a bit too much and are not being fully utilised, according to her research.

Two years ago, she co-founded the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, a group that set out to identify, develop, and promote a second generation of corporate policies and practices that support women's work and life needs. Today, the taskforce comprises 34 global companies, and the research it has instigated is the core of this book.

The abundance of facts that Hewlett cites will come as no surprise. Women are outperforming men at university level but top CEOs are predominantly male. The financial loss of professional women after years of training cost Ernst & Young in the US more than $10 million in one year alone.

The first half of the book centres on the reasons for, and benefits of, companies retaining (and bringing back) women in the workplace; the second half seeks to promote what she calls 'gold standard' companies. And with a list that includes the likes of General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Time Warner and Lehman Brothers, who'd expect any less?

The initiatives she cites cover flexible work arrangements, harnessing altruism, re-imaging work, reducing stigma and stereotypes, and helping women sustain ambition. Each of these areas is explored through the trusty Harvard Business School case-history formula and is clearly set out so the reader can easily apply the learning.

One of the more interesting approaches is from Citigroup. It worked out that more than half of women with high credentials don't have children but over 24% will end up opting out of the firm or reducing productivity largely because they are caring for aging parents. It created an Elder Care Management Service, a consultancy to help employees evaluate living and wellness needs for older family members.

It is early days for this service, which is so far used by few, but what is interesting is that Citibank's research showed that such care is now the prime reason staff use its resource and referral services - surpassing childcare for the first time.

Hewlett doesn't pretend that doing any of this is easy. Her powerful advocacy does, at times, not rest well with the robust, research-based part of the book.

First, there are significant differences between the work culture in, for example, Europe and the US. That is not to say Europe has the panacea, but I am not sure the US model is going to be the dominant force in future.

Second, although useful, this book really did not say anything new. It is an expression of where we are at the moment but it did not show anything that demonstrates the capacity to scale to the point where change could be sufficiently widespread to deal with the issue.

Third, although companies can do a great deal, this book - perhaps because its research is located mainly across the Atlantic - provides very little role-model material for how the work environment can be shaped to enable companies to do more or be obliged to respond more creatively and flexibly.

Finally, even though readers will accept that future competitiveness will require women to be heavily represented in elite and lucrative careers, and that spreading best practice from some of the world's most profitable companies can be a good thing, more attention needs to be paid to the much longer tail of other sorts of company.

Anyone who picks up this book will find much of interest to digest and consider and develop. But at the end of reading the book I was left with one final question. If answered, it would undoubtedly make a big difference to the role of women in business leadership in our country: where are the other British Sylvia Ann Hewletts?

- Nicola Mendelsohn is deputy chairman of Grey London

- Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping talented women on the road to success; Sylvia Ann Hewlett; Harvard Business School Press £17.99.

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