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In the Search for Talent, Women Present as Much Opportunity as China or India

Companies are often focused on the big opportunities. In the talent marketplace, that equates to a desire to tap into the billion-plus populations of China and India, both attractive options to augment the future workforce.

During the past year, the number of global employers who believe talent shortages will negatively affect their business increased by nearly a third. There has been a collective realization that the hunt for talent is on again, and those big populations loom as large, important targets.

But there is another billion-plus population standing on the threshold available to join the global workforce: women. Women have not received the same level of attention from many business leaders, but they will almost certainly play a significant role in the global economy in the coming decade.

This population is not only plentiful, but also it is welleducated. The U.S. Education Department estimated women earned 62 percent of all associate degrees in the graduating class of 2013, 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees and 52 percent of all doctorates. Women are educated in higher numbers in most major countries throughout the world, and the gap is expected to grow.

During the past century, the rise of the female worker in the U.S. has added nearly 2 percentage points per year to gross domestic product growth. As Derek Thompson wrote in July in The Atlantic, “More than China, more than the Internet, and more than banks and central baking, economic growth is driven by women.”

Today’s young women are the first cohort in modern history to start their work lives at near parity with men. A December 2013 Pew survey found that women under 32 now make 93 percent of what young men earn, up from just 67 percent in 1980. The pay advantage for women under 32 today stems directly from their educational advantages.

Nevertheless, despite having a better place at the starting line of their careers, Gen Y women still see roadblocks to their success, particularly in corporations. Pew’s research found young women are just as likely as members of the older generations to believe women face an uphill climb in terms of being treated equally by society and employers.

One of the implications of this view is that women are forsaking large organizations to become entrepreneurs. They have been starting businesses at a higher rate than men for the past 20 years, according to a June 2012 article in Forbes. Going forward, American Express OPEN predicts women will be responsible for more than half of the nearly 10 million new small-business jobs expected to be created by 2018.

To attract and retain this talented pool into corporations, businesses will need to create a workplace that is geared to support women’s workplace preferences. This will involve:

• Designing task-based work. The practice of structuring important work so it can only be done on a full-time basis severely limits its attractiveness to women — and to many men as well.

• Making flexible hours the norm. Cultures that equate long hours with the price of success have a profoundly negative effect on women’s emotional state and commitment.

• Approbation for diversity. Companies whose leaders exhibit a warm acceptance of diverse ideas and perspectives, along with an appreciation of and curiosity about different points of view, are more inviting to women.

Smart companies realize attracting talented women involves men as well. Men have a critical role to play in devising and implementing strategies for leveraging all talent in the workplace. Many are eager for the same elements of flexibility and diversity that are essential to attract women today. Some organizations are creating forums specifically to bring men into a focused discussion of the options.

For example, a Catalyst group called Men Advocating Real Change offers a global platform for business leaders to engage in critical dialogue, take a stand for workplace equality and inclusion, and become a part of a global network of like-minded professionals who are committed to creating inclusive workplaces.

Increasingly, companies are learning what has been true for the past century — when they support women as customers, employees, leaders, future investors and partners, their businesses win.

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  • Tamara Erickson Tamara J. Erickson is a McKinsey Award-winning author, a leading expert on generations in the workplace, and a widely-respected authority on leadership, the changing workforce, collaboration and innovation, and the nature of work in intelligent organizations. She has three times been named one of the 50 most influential living management thinkers in the world by ... more

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