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When Women Leave the Workforce, Think of Those Left Behind

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WOMEN WORK
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As a 56-year-old investment manager and mother of four grown children, I read many articles about the issues facing women with demanding careers as well as families, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal piece about the lack of women in finance, assessing how closely the experience described mirrors my own. While most of these pieces explain how the pressure from competing forces results in many women leaving the workforce, they fail to mention a very significant issue: the impact on those of us who remain behind.

Over three decades, I have watched my female colleagues vanish from the full-time job market, and I miss their competence and camaraderie.

I'm not one to undervalue my male colleagues; in fact, I prefer a mix of men and women at work. As a teenager I refused to apply to all-female colleges, and when I entered Harvard Business School in 1981, women made up only 25 percent of my class. I appreciated Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but was able to function well in an environment where men significantly outnumbered women.

When I accepted a job at Fidelity Investments in 1983, the company, to its credit, hired two women among the four new stock analysts. The company was growing rapidly to handle the explosion of 401K plans and mutual fund interest, and it added more women stock analysts along the way. At that time, women were just beginning to attend graduate business programs in earnest, so the pool of potential female hires had increased. The men strongly outnumbered us, but there was a meaningful female cohort.

In the 1980s, I was often the only woman in a meeting of analysts, but by the 1990s, this was no longer the case. As more women were hired, I found there was something satisfying about being "one of the girls": having enough of us on board to field a softball team (no reserves, though), to have lunch, to chat about stocks or stockings. We made connections on the mundane as well as the meaningful -- where to shop downtown or get a Caesar salad to go, what hotel to stay at in San Francisco or London for business, or how to earn the respect of the most important fund managers. Although there were no other mothers among my female colleagues for several years after I had children, there was a tacit understanding that they appreciated the difficulty of my situation and might experience it themselves eventually.

As investors, my female colleagues matched the competence of the men. They were as well-prepared as analysts about the specifics on companies and industries for which they were responsible and equally as strong at interviewing management teams. While we lacked the "boys' club" back slapping, let's-play-Pebble-sometime banter, male executives seemed to enjoy the novelty element of a young woman investor grilling them with financial questions. They also learned that we were serious.

But as the millennium arrived, the number of women around the office began to decline. Several of the younger women, who were starting families at that time, began to leave because of the job's demanding travel requirements and long hours, lack of a clear career road map, or the desire to spend more time with their children. Some women tried part-time work or moved to divisions with less performance pressure, but nonetheless, they eventually exited the firm.

This happens in the natural evolution of all companies, but because the overall pool of women is small, each departure has more impact. As our lives include the complexity of parenting issues, I found it easier at times to talk to a woman than to a man in sharing both major experiences (getting married, delivering a baby) and minor (buying shoes, playing tennis) -- even debating market trends and stock charts. As contemporaries of your own gender leave, work becomes lonely.

As women leave their jobs because of the difficulty in balancing their families and work, the loss of friends and touchstones can become unpalatable for those who remain. We lose the confidence that stems from inclusion in a group. As a former colleague of mine, a very successful fund manager, so elegantly phrased it, "Let's face it, you spend most of your waking hours at work. It's almost where you really live, and you can't underestimate the impact of having at least one good friend there."Studies imply that having friends at work extends longevity, in part because of stress reduction. Having someone with similar work and life experiences with whom to exchange stories, advice and queries is therapeutic. If we crave female companionship that's no longer available, we may vanish ourselves, and the cycle continues.

There are many suggestions as to how to try and keep women in the workplace. But what can we do to help those of us still here?

It's true that companies need to keep hiring women to maintain some critical mass. However, the burden may fall more to the female cohort at the office, who need to nurture, cherish and connect with each other. Arranging female-only events outside the office -- whether it's an activity like golf (like the guys), lunch, or a drink after work -- builds cohesion and camaraderie. These events can be set up within your core group or peers, or ideally with leadership involvement. With each connection that women make, there's a greater chance to help others through the difficult work/life balance issues, with the goal that they'll feel comfortable staying where they are in the workplace.

Lasting friendships in the office help with stress and morale. Leading by example to support, encourage and mentor others can help women stay at work, and help those left behind keep their confidence and continue to experience the benefit of each other's company.

This article originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.