One Weird Trick for Keeping Female Employees From Quitting

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"Tell me again how much less you plan to pay me than you do Paul?"
"Tell me again how much less you plan to pay me than you do Paul?" Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

We all know the narrative about why women leave the workforce. By now — decades after “the second shift,” five years after Sheryl Sandberg asked us to lean in, four years after we learned why “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — conventional wisdom says that employers lose women in their 30s because those women are starting families, and need more flexibility than the workplace is designed to grant them.

Well, here’s a shocker: A new global study of women in their 30s found they don’t leave jobs because they’re worried about family obligations. They leave because employers won’t pay and promote them. “Surprisingly,” reads the report, “young women identified finding a higher paying job, a lack of learning and development, and a shortage of interesting and meaningful work as the primary reasons why they may leave.”

This is only surprising if you have never spoken to a woman in her 30s. Most women don’t have to be exhorted to care more about work or apply themselves more vigorously. They are all in — no lean about it. The problem is that, all too often, their efforts are not recognized, cultivated, and compensated in the way their male colleagues’ are. This is often spun into a complex issue that some of corporate America’s brightest minds have struggled to solve — the stuff of Supreme Court cases and contentious legislation.

But the reality is that, if you’re an employer, you can retain your female employees longer and keep them happier by taking just three simple steps:

1. PAY WOMEN MORE. Pay us what you pay our male co-workers who do similar jobs. Pay us enough that if you were to accidentally email the entire office a spreadsheet containing everyone’s salary, you wouldn’t be ashamed. Pay us what you know we deserve, even if we haven’t demanded it. Pay us what we’ve earned.

2. PAY WOMEN MORE. Don’t assume we want to become mothers. And if we already are mothers, don’t assume that we’d rather have fewer hours or responsibilities. Assume, in all cases, that we work hard and we want money. More money. As long as we keep showing up and doing the job well, and until we tell you that we need different hours or a new role, just pay us more. And keep paying us.

3. PAY WOMEN MORE. Do it. Now.

So now that you’re paying your female employees on par with the men, let’s take a look at what else you might be able to do to retain women. You could work with them to develop their skills and use their talents in interesting, meaningful ways. If that seems too time-consuming and “managerial” for you, don’t worry. You can default to paying them even more money, and you just might get lucky and have them stick around a while longer. All you have to do is recognize that women’s potential is equal to that of men. Yes, even if the women in question are mothers.

The brilliant thing about this three-step plan is that, even though it’s not explicitly about mothers, it accounts for the opt-out question. If your primary concern is enabling mothers to stay in the workforce, paying women more money solves that problem, too. For privileged hetero couples I know, these days the decision about which partner stays home with the kids is fundamentally financial. If his position pays more, which it usually does, they tend to decide that she’ll be the one to stay home when child care is too expensive. It’s gendered, but less because of roles at home and more because of pay at work. Pay inequity and caregiving obligations are actually not two separate workplace issues facing women: They are one and the same.

The opt-out problem is, in other words, a money problem. Of course biology plays a role — women are more likely to physically need time off after the birth of a child. But if they were fairly compensated at every stage of their careers, they’d be on equal footing with their male partners and co-workers even after becoming parents. Guaranteed paid family leave for all workers and flexible work environments would help, too. But paying women more, from their first job onward, is a game-changer.

In a slightly older study of Harvard Business School graduates, men and women were equally career-driven in their first years in the workforce, and both men and women slowly grew more invested in their lives outside of work as they aged. The only difference was that women tended to rate “opportunities for career growth and development” as slightly more important to them than men did — probably because those opportunities proved more elusive to women. The study also found that only 40 to 50 percent of women were satisfied with their professional accomplishments and opportunities for career growth.

The great thing about paying women more is that it doesn’t just help business-school grads. For years, conversations about working women have centered on those who are college-educated and pursuing prestigious jobs. The great thing about simply paying women — all women — more money is that it benefits those who are usually left out of these debates, too. This innovative strategy works for hourly wage-earners as well as it does for corporate executives, and every woman in-between. The formula is simple. Is she a woman? Are you in charge of paying her? Pay her more.