Organisations that try to ensure they have access to 100% of the world's talent probably feel some kinship with Hercules, one of whose 12 labours was the slaughter of the Hydra. This creature had many heads and every time Hercules struck one off with his club, two new ones grew.
The parallel with reforms to the effective employment of women is that no sooner do companies devise policies to deal with one issue related to the equitable and successful employment of women - equal opportunity, flexible work patterns, maternity leave - than another, often unforeseen, issue emerges.
Although considerable energy has been spent by organisations and women on addressing structural and cultural impediments, their efforts have not yet solved the problem. In Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains why this matters and deploys arresting demographic and economic data to push home the point that this familiar problem still matters, and is becoming steadily more acute in developed economies.
The different elements that drive men and women in their motivation to work, for example, are well researched and more clearly understood: according to a 2004 study by International Survey Research, the two top drivers for men are career advancement and financial reward; for women, it's relationships at work and delivering a service to customers or clients.
Hewlett also considers the nature of women's on-linear careers. More women than men take time out from their career in order to have children or care for relatives. Although these pull factors causing women to 'off-ramp' (ie, exit the motorway) are indeed very strong, a number of push factors, centred round work, are even stronger. The survey found that 52% of women left work at least in part because their career was not satisfying, while time for children was a less important factor (43%). Perhaps most startlingly, in business, banking and finance, none of the women wanted to return to their previous employer.
These findings have significant implications for corporate leaders. They suggest that a complex web of factors associated with organisational culture has as much, if not more, influence than family issues on the decision of talented women to leave the organisation. The first-generation policies put in place to address the pull factors and level the playing field have proved necessary, but not sufficient. The talent pipeline that was envisaged - women moving through the organisation to board level - has not been filled.
One of the reasons - and here we return to Hercules and the Hydra - has been the rise of what Hewlett calls 'extreme' jobs, where the boundaries between work and personal lives are blurred. In simple numeric terms, this affects men more than women: only 6% of women hold jobs with 60+-hour weeks, compared with 29% of men. But the rearing of this latest head has implications for more women than that 6%, since it will make it more difficult for women who don't want to comply with that model to rise through the ranks. A second phase of effort is therefore needed. Perhaps most crucially, there needs to be a step change in imagination and creativity in the way in which we think about work.
Central to Hewlett's argument is the idea that companies need to make it easier for women to rejoin them: to take up the threads of their career when they want to 'on-ramp'. There are some great success stories: one woman at Booz Allen Hamilton was able to 'ramp up and ramp down' no fewer than eight times (including time off to do an MBA, moving to Brazil for a year and taking maternity leave).
This woman's career has manifestly been anything but linear, but she is now the highest-ranking female in its private sector business. But for every success story, there are dozens of frustrated women, struggling to fit into a system designed for and by men. Many of the initiatives depicted in Hewlett's books are not really new, but they suggest a willingness to think more laterally about work.
The quid pro quo, of course, is that organisations must learn to manage infinite flexibility - not just of working hours, but of working style. However, despite this, the message in Off-Ramps and On-Ramps is that some large companies have discovered a real appetite for change in the way they interact with the women in their workforce. The Hydra had better look out.
- Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: keeping talented women on the road to success,
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Harvard Business School Press, $29.95, ISBN: 1-42210-102-9.
Peninah Thomson is a partner at international executive coaching